What do The Sword of Damocles, Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, and the 18th century apparatus La Nature à Coup d’Œil all have in common?
They were in fact all early attempts at simulating an artificial reality. The present day equivalents to these inventions are termed “virtual reality” (VR), “augmented reality” (AR), mixed reality (MR), or, more broadly, “extended reality” (XR) devices and now utilise cutting-edge technology.
The concept itself, however, is by no means new. One of the earliest inventions in this field was patented by artist Robert Barker in 1787.
La Nature à Coup d’Œil, later termed ‘The Panorama’, comprised a large landscape image painted onto a long canvas strip which was then displayed inside a circular building. The intention being that the observers would stand in an enclosure in the centre of the building and view the painting as if it were a real panorama as seen from a high viewpoint. Barker’s patent even goes on to describe the lighting, ventilation and access required to achieve maximum immersion. Despite sounding very elementary, it was reported that many visitors felt disoriented and sick as a result of the experience.
Jumping forward nearly 200 hundred years to 1962, we come to Morton L. Heilig’s patent for his Sensorama Simulator. This contraption, operating a bit more like present-day VR devices, but looking a lot more like a test you would have at the optician’s, includes means of providing a 3D visual effect, vibrations, a breeze, stereo sound effects, and even “odour-sense stimulation”.
The simulator, which ran short films such as “Belly Dancer” and “I’m a Coca-Cola Bottle”, was unable to secure funding and ultimately ended in failure.
Just six years later, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland developed what is widely considered to be the first VR Head-Mounted Display (HMD): The Sword of Damocles. This device used head-tracking technology to display a virtual overlay that changed perspective based on the user’s head position. Such an overlay meant that this device was also a precursor to augmented reality technology.
Extended reality experiences have clearly been of interest to innovators for many years, but how far have we really come from these early endeavours? And where might this technology take us?
Despite an unsuccessful reception in the late 90s, advances in technology have seen VR devices experience a resurgence of interest in the last few years. This sudden revival has culminated in the development of high-end gaming devices such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR.
While the broad concept has changed very little, current technology now allows users to enter completely artificial worlds in ways that had not previously been possible. By using positional tracking sensors and handheld controllers, users are able to interact fully with a simulated environment, while the HMD provides immersive visuals and 3D sound.
This refined fusion between precision tracking and high-resolution displays is allowing VR/AR technology to regain traction in the gaming industry. Beyond the mainstream developments already mentioned, AR company Magic Leap has recently released for general sale their cutting-edge AR goggles: Magic Leap One. Using a multitude of tracking cameras and what Magic Leap call a “photonic lightfield chip”, the Magic Leap One is able to display virtual objects in different focal planes relative to real-world objects. This means that if a virtual ball is sitting on your real-world coffee table and you virtually knock it off, you will see it virtually fall off the real-world table and virtually roll along the real-world floor.
The complexity of achieving such a feat is reflected by the array of advanced technology implemented in the goggles. In a 22-step “teardown”, technology analysis and repair firm iFixit identified a range of components such as: infrared projectors and LEDs for depth sensing; magnetic sensor coils for tracking headset position; a LCOS microdisplay to provide the visuals; and a plethora of processing units to analyse the incoming image data.
But the ability to realistically simulate an artificial environment stretches well beyond the gaming and entertainment industry. Increasingly VR/AR devices are being used in other industries as genuine tools for improving experiences and efficiency and many believe this is where the future of these technologies lie.
VR is being applied in education as a means of providing VR field trips, such as to the International Space Station, or inside the human body. In the retail industry, shoppers are able to try on make-up, explore their dream kitchen, or even explore the shop itself all through VR. In manufacturing, AR technology is being used for visual inventory management (“vision picking”) and remote maintenance and inspection of machinery. Architects are using XR technology to design and demonstrate buildings. The increasing realism and precision now available through XR means that it is even being applied in healthcare, allowing surgeons to perform surgery remotely.
While it is clear that the present day XR innovations are worlds apart from the early attempts there is one thing that all of these inventions certainly have in common: Intellectual Property.
From a big painting in a round building (Patent for displaying Views of Nature, Robert Barker) to corneal sphere tracking for generating an eye model (EP3329316A1, Oculus VR LLC), it is clear that all of these individuals and companies understood the importance of protecting investment and market share.
A recent study by IPlytics found that VR/AR patent applications have increased nearly six fold between 2010 and 2018. Whether it is a registered design for the shape of a headset or a patent to protect the technology inside it, the value of intellectual property protection has never been higher in this field and we expect to see many more interesting inventions coming our way in the years to come.
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