Expo/Theater/Virtual Environments

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Virtual Reality: History

Expo/Theater/Virtual Environments


Virtual reality may have popped into the headlines only in the past few years, but its roots reach back four decades. It was in the late 1950s, just as the nation was shaking off stale traces of McCarthyism and was shaking to the sounds of Elvis, that an idea arose that would change the way people interacted with computers and make possible VR.

At the time, computers were hulking Goliaths locked in air-conditioned rooms and used only by those conversant in esoteric programming languages. Few people considered them more than glorified adding machines.

But a young electrical engineer and former naval radar technician named Douglas Engelbart viewed them differently. Rather than limit computers to number crunching, Engelbart envisioned them as tools for digital display. He knew from his days with radar that any digital information could be viewed on a screen. Why not, he then reasoned, connect the computer to a screen and use both to solve problems?

Opportunity and timing

At first, Engelbart's ideas were dismissed, but by the early 1960s other people were thinking the same way. Moreover, the time was right for his vision of computing. Communications technology was intersecting with computing and graphics technology. The fi rst computers based on transistors rather than vacuum tubes became available. This synergy yielded more user-friendly computers, which laid the groundwork for personal computers, computer graphics, and later on, the emergence of virtual reality.

Several pivotal events marked the decade:

Courtesy SIGGRAPH Video Review
Fear of nuclear attack prompted the U.S. military to commission a new radar system that would process large amounts of information and immediately display it in a form that humans could readily understand. The resulting radar defense system was the first "real time," or instantaneous, simulation of data.

Advanced Research Projects Agency
Aircraft designers began experimenting with ways for computers to graphically display, or model, air flow data. Computer experts began restructuring computers so they would display these models as well as compute them. The designers' work paved the way fo r scientific visualization, an advanced form of computer modeling that expresses multiple sets of data as images and simulations.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
An infusion of self-styled computer wizards strove to reduce the barriers to human interactions with the computer by replacing keyboards with interactive devices that relied on images and hand gestures to manipulate data. In 1962 Ivan Sutherland developed a light pen with which images could be sketched on a computer. Sutherland's first computer-aided design program, called Sketchpad, opened the way for designers to use computers to create blueprints of automobiles, cities, and industrial products. By the end of the decade, the designs were operating in real time. By 1970, Sutherland also produced a primitive head-mounted display and Engelbart unveiled his crude pointing device for moving text around on a computer screen -- the first "mouse."

Get real, play war games

One of the most influential antecedents of virtual reality was the flight simulator. Following World War II and through the 1990s, the military and industrial complex pumped millions of dollars into technology to simulate flying airplanes (and later driving tanks and steering ships).

Evans & Sutherland
Then as now, it was cheaper, and safer, to train pilots on the ground before subjecting them to the hazards of flight. The early flight simulators consisted of mock cockpits built on motion platforms that pitched and rolled. A limitation, however, was they lacked visual feeback. This changed when video displays were coupled with model cockpits.

Evans & Sutherland
By the 1970s, computer-generated graphics had replaced videos and models. These flight simulations were operating in real time, though the graphics were primitive. In 1979, the military experimented with head-mounted displays. These innovations were driven by the greater dangers associated with training on and flying the jet flighters that were being built in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, better software, hardware, and motion-control platforms enabled pilots to navig ate through highly detailed virtual worlds.

Of course, the "military-industrial complex" was not the only entity interested in computer graphics.

Get virtual, play video games

A natural consumer of computer graphics was the entertainment industry, which, like the military and industry, was the source of many valuable spin-offs in virtual reality.

By the 1970s, some of Hollywood's most dazzling special effects were computer-generated, such as the battle scenes in the big-budget, blockbuster science fiction movie Star Wars, which was released in 1976. Later came such movies as Ter minator and Jurassic Park. In the early 1980s, the video game business boomed.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
One direct spin-off of entertainment's venture into computer graphics was the dataglove, a computer interface device that detects hand movements. It was invented to produce music by linking hand gestures to a music synthesizer. NASA Ames was one of the first customers for this new computer input device for its experiments with virtual environments. But the biggest consumer of the "dataglove" was the Mattel company, which adapted it into the PowerGlove, the pervasive mitt with which children conquered adversaries in the popular Nintendo game.

An eye for science

Tom DeFanti, EVL/University of Illinois, on-camera
Movie/Sound Byte
QuickTime Movie (714K); Sound File (353K); Text

As pinball machines gave way to video games, the field of scientific visualization underwent its own metamorphosis from bar charts and line drawings to dynamic images.

Scientific visualization uses computer graphics to transform columns of data into images. This imagery enables scientists to assimilate the enormous amount of data required in some scientific investigations. Imagine trying to understand DNA sequences, mol ecular models, brain maps, fluid flows, or cosmic explosions from columns of numbers.

A goal of scientific visualization is to capture the dynamic qualities of systems or processes in its images. In the 1980s, borrowing and as well as creating many of the special effects techniques of Hollywood, scientific visualization moved into animation. In 1990, NCSA's award-winning animation of smog descending upon Los Angeles influenced air pollution legislation in the state. This animation was a compelling testament of the value of this kind of imagery.

But animation had severe limitations. First, it was costly. After months of elaborate computer simulations, the smog animation itself took 6 months to produce from the resulting data; individual frames took from several minutes to an hour. Second, it did not allow for interactivity -- that is, for changes in the data or conditions governing an experiment that produce immediate responses in the imagery. Once completed, the animation could not be altered.

Scientists wanted interactivity. So did the military, industry, business, and entertainment. The demand for interactivity pushed computer visualization to the limits, towards virtual reality.

Back to number crunchers . . . with a difference

Interactivity would have remained wishful thinking if not for the development of high-performance computers in the mid-1980s. These machines provided the speed and memory for programmers and scientists to begin developing advanced visuali zation software programs. By the end of the 1980s, low-cost, high-resolution graphic workstations were linked to high-speed computers, which made visualization technology more accessible.

All the basic elements of VR had existed since 1980, but it took high-performance computers, with their powerful image rendering capabilities, to make it work. Demand was rising for visualization environments to help scientists comprehend the vast amounts of data pouring out of their computers daily. As drivers for both computation and VR, high-performance computers no longer served as mere number crunchers, but became exciting vehicles for exploration and discovery.

VR at the frontiers of knowledge

Today, virtual reality is poised to change the way we interact with and control computers. Like the introduction of computers more than 50 years ago, its impacts are unknown. Will there be VR in every house, classroom, and office? Will immersing oneself i n a computer-generated world be as commonplace as watching a movie?

About the only thing that does seem certain about VR is that it will grow and develop. And as the technology matures, it will become better, cheaper, and more accessible. Furthermore, the networks that link computers will expand, making it possible for VR to weave its way into our daily lives.

Clearly, the future of VR is limited only by our imaginations.

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NCSA & EVL. Last modified 10/2495