You’ve heard about virtual reality, seen the new gadgets, and read about how VR will be the next big thing. But you probably haven’t yet realized the extent to which this technology will change the way we live. We used to be bound to a physical reality, but new immersive computer simulations allow us to escape our homes and bodies. Suddenly anyone can see what it’s like to stand on the peak of Mount Everest. A person who can’t walk can experience a marathon from the perspective of an Olympic champion. And why stop there? Become a dragon and fly through the universe. But it’s not only about spectacle. Virtual and augmented reality will impact nearly every aspect of our lives—commerce, medicine, politics—the applications are infinite.
It may sound like science fiction, but this vision of the future drives billions of dollars in business and is a top priority for such companies as Facebook, Google, and Sony. Yet little is known about the history of these technologies. In Defying Reality, David M. Ewalt traces the story from ancient amphitheaters to Cold War military laboratories, through decades of hype and failure, to a nineteen-year-old video game aficionado who made the impossible possible. Ewalt looks at how businesses are already using this tech to revolutionize the world around us, and what we can expect in the future. Writing for a mainstream audience as well as for technology enthusiasts, Ewalt offers a unique perspective on VR. With firsthand accounts and on-the-ground reporting, Defying Reality shows how virtual reality will change our work, our play, and the way we relate to one another.
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There is a unicorn in a cavern under an ancient forest in France. I've seen it myself, even though it wasn't really there; I've stood in front of it, even though its home is a place where no one can go.
The unicorn is painted on the wall of Lascaux Cave, a subterranean complex in the Vzre Valley, about two hours' drive east of Bordeaux. Seventeen thousand years ago, some of the first modern humans in Europe decorated the caverns with hundreds of images of animals, symbols, and abstract shapes. In 1940, it was rediscovered by a group of teenagers and became one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.
For decades following the discovery, countless tourists flocked to Lascaux. Henri Breuil, a French priest and archaeologist who was one of the first researchers to study the caves, called it the Sistine Chapel of prehistory; after artist Pablo Picasso saw the paintings, he lamented that his entire generation of revolutionary artists had "invented nothing new." But the ancient drawings were fragile, and the presence of so many visitors took a toll. In 1963, the French government banned the public and locked the doors.
Fortunately, technology allows a modern tourist to sneak inside. Lascaux comes to life in 360-degree videos and virtual reality tours; I'd seen photos of the caves and studied their paintings in college, but it took seeing that unicorn in VR to really understand the place. Even though the French government has built detailed replicas of the caves for people to visit, the virtual version makes for a better trip-it's appropriately claustrophobic and free from the distracting presence of other tourists.
It's also a particularly fitting way to visit, because Lascaux may be the oldest example in human history of an attempt to create a virtual world. You'd never know it from looking at photographs, but when you stand inside the caves-virtually or in person-the intention is clear. Just like VR headsets block the real world from view, the caverns separate a visitor from the forest above. Instead of drawing with pixels on a screen, the cave artists used pigment on rock walls. Lascaux's creators used the topography of the caverns to create immersion: a chamber decorated with sketches of wild horses isn't just a jumble of drawings, but a herd that surrounds the viewer. They used perspective tricks to make the illustrations seem three-dimensional: the body of an ox is presented in profile, but its head is turned to face the viewer. And they used the shape of the rock to give their art depth and shape; for example, a twist in a wall makes a deer appear to turn away as it dashes around a corner.
No one knows why the people who created the caves went to so much trouble. Perhaps the goal was to enthrall the viewer in order to teach them something, like an Upper Paleolithic version of a flashy how-to video on YouTube: As writer and technology expert Howard Rheingold suggests, "subterranean cyberspaces" like Lascaux may have served to "imprint information on the minds of the first technologists." Or maybe the caves were immersive entertainment, an attempt to tell a story in the most realistic way possible, to convey the excitement of hunting without the risk of getting gored or trampled.
In the millennia after the cavemen left their caves, increasingly advanced civilizations created increasingly sophisticated immersive entertainment. Around 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks built their own VR viewers out of wood, stone, and marble-the word theater comes from the Greek verb theasthai, or literally, "to view." These technological marvels exploited Then-cutting-edge science in order to trick audiences, including acoustics (semicircular amphitheaters enhanced sound waves, allowing large audiences to hear voices at a distance) and mechanics (a wooden crane called a mechane lifted actors into the air and made them appear to be flying; it's the device that made possible the deus ex machina). Elaborate costumes, handheld props, and painted scenery panels helped complete the illusion, transforming the stage into a fantastic environment.
Other cultures created virtual worlds through visual arts like sculpture and painting. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, started building a city-sized mausoleum around 246 bc, filling it with terra-cotta sculptures of his soldiers, pets, musicians, and palace officials-a kind of simulated palace for him to occupy in the afterlife. The Romans used frescoes to transform their homes from dingy concrete into more pleasant realities, covering entire walls with illusionistic images. Buildings in the city of Pompeii, preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ad 79, reveal interior rooms painted so that they appear to have balconies and windows that open up onto lush imaginary landscapes.
Chinese artists created immersive art using paintings on long scrolls of paper. Gu Hongzhong's eleven-foot-wide The Night Revels of Han Xizai is a record of an actual night in the life of a tenth-century government minister. According to legend, it was created so emperor Li Yu could witness Han Xizai's debauchery, including listening to music and watching women dancing. In the twelfth century, the artist Zhang Zeduan created a ten-by-seventeen-foot depiction of the city of Kaifeng, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, which includes accurate images of buildings, animals, and more than eight hundred people. By virtue of their size, real-life subjects, and narrative content, these panoramic paintings amount to another kind of virtual reality that transports the viewer back to dynastic China.
In 1787, the Irish-born artist Robert Barker took that idea a huge step further. Inspired by the sweeping 360-degree view from Calton Hill, a spot in central Edinburgh, he painted a massive seventy-foot-wide watercolor landscape of the city and hung it on the inside of a cylindrical surface. Viewers stood on a platform in the middle, surrounded by the painting, so that it simulated the experience of actually being in Scotland. He patented the technique as the Panorama, coining the now common term from the Greek words pan and horama-"all that which is seen."
After first exhibiting the work in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Barker took it to London. Reviews were good, but audiences were limited, so Barker created another, bigger panorama, this time of the London skyline. English viewers liked that better, and the artist earned a small fortune selling tickets to see it. In 1793, Barker went even bigger, constructing a building in Leicester Square that could display two immense panoramas, one of them stretching floor to ceiling in a three-story-tall rotunda. The new venue became an immensely popular attraction and showed a variety of scenes, including foreign cities and historical military battles. By the early nineteenth century, panoramas were a worldwide phenomenon, with similar sites constructed in cities across the globe. The immersive experiences were even touted as a high-tech alternative to actual travel.
In 1822, the French artists Charles-Marie Bouton and Louis Daguerre combined the panorama's massive imagery with elements of theater to create an attraction they called the Diorama-scenes made of multiple paintings on linen curtains over on a stage, constructed in such a way that when bright lights were shone on different spots, the images would appear to move and change. The shows were a big hit and were also copied around the world; later versions added sound effects, stage props, and even live actors to enhance the illusion. (Fueled in part by his success with the Diorama, a few decades later Daguerre pioneered another way to render realistic images-the early photographic process known as the daguerreotype.)
In a way, all art strives to create a virtual reality, to transport an audience and immerse them in a subject or story. But theater and paintings are only distant relatives of todayÕs high-tech 3-D headsets-the direct ancestors of modern VR came out of the study of optics.
Humans are able to view the world in three dimensions because our brains combine a number of different visual cues to create the perception of depth. Monocular cues require only one eye and provide information largely based on context, including the relative size of objects (a car that appears to be tiny is probably farther away than one that appears to be huge), occlusion (if one car blocks the view of another car, you can tell which one is closer), and motion parallax (when you're driving in a car, objects on the side of the road move out of your field of view faster than objects that are far away).
Then there are binocular cues, which work because we've got two eyes spaced apart laterally on the front of our head. Each eye views the world from a slightly different perspective. You can see this by closing your right eye and looking through your left, then closing your left eye and looking through your right. Do that rapidly a few times and you'll notice a difference in the apparent position of objects. That's called parallax, and when your brain notices it, it can compare and contrast the images to calculate distance. The result is one of our most powerful binocular cues, stereopsis, and it's the foundation of the simulated depth in virtual reality and 3-D movies. (Another binocular cue, convergence, is drawn from the inward movement of your eyes when they look at something up close; to test it, touch your finger to your nose and focus on it, and then hold it at arm's length and look again. That movement you felt helps your brain figure out the relative distance of nearby objects, and it's actually the cause of some problems in modern VR, since your distance to the screen never changes.)
The English scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone first identified stereopsis in an 1838 paper called "Contributions to the Physiology of Vision," which described how the eyes capture two perspectives that the brain fuses into one three-dimensional image. It also outlined a device he'd invented that could "enable any person to observe all the phenomena in question with the greatest ease and certainty"-an instrument he called a stereoscope.
It had a simple design: two mirrors attached at a common edge to form a right angle, and two wood panels, one facing each mirror at a 45-degree angle (viewed from above, it would look like the letters I V I). The viewer would position himself with his nose against the outside corner joint of the mirror so that his left eye saw the reflection of the left-hand panel, and his right eye saw the right-hand one. Each panel would hold a slightly different illustration of an object or scene. The viewer would look straight ahead and see two perspectives of what appeared to be the same object, and his brain would combine them into a single three-dimensional image.
In his paper, Wheatstone focused on how a few simple line drawings-cubes, cones, and pyramids-could be made to appear as if they were three-dimensional objects. But he also understood that with better graphics, stereoscopic devices might present convincing virtual realities. "Careful attention would enable an artist to draw and paint the two component pictures, so as to present to the mind of the observer . . . perfect identity with the object represented," he wrote. "Flowers, crystals, busts, vases, instruments of various kinds . . . might thus be represented so as not to be distinguished by sight from the real objects themselves."
After Wheatstone demonstrated his invention at an annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, one of his rivals picked up the idea and ran with it. The Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster was already well known for inventing the kaleidoscope, an optical toy that had become phenomenally popular, and he spotted a similar opportunity in 3-D imaging.
In 1849, Brewster patented his own stereoscopic viewer that used lenses instead of mirrors. Users peered through two prisms at a piece of cardboard printed with two side-by-side eye images. Since the prisms bent light, the left image appeared on top of the right image in the center of the card, creating a single stereoscopic picture. The prisms also magnified the images, which meant they could be more detailed and printed on smaller pieces of paper. The device could even view stereo photographs on glass slides produced via Louis Daguerre's daguerreotype process. And since the whole rig fit into a handheld wooden box the size of a pair of binoculars, it was easy to set up, use, and carry.
Brewster's stereoscope made its debut at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations-the first World's Fair, held in 1851 at Hyde Park in London-where Queen Victoria tried the device. Her Majesty was amused, and her approval kicked off one of the biggest fads of the era, driving huge demand for stereoscope viewers and imagery. Over 250,000 image cards (or stereographs) were sold in France and England in just three months after the royal viewing, depicting everything from landscapes to photographs of newsworthy events to formal portraits of world leaders. Within five years, Brewster had sold around half a million viewers, and imitators sold countless more competing products, including deluxe units mounted in mahogany cabinets with polished brass hardware. A high-end stereoscope was a must-have item in any respectable Victorian parlor.
Across the Atlantic in the former colonies, one of the United States' most famous thinkers saw a need for a populist alternative. In 1861, the author, poet, and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. created what became known as the American stereoscope-a simple inexpensive viewer for the masses. His design was minimalist: two lenses in a wooden frame, an eye hood made out of pasteboard, and a small bracket for holding cards, all attached to a central spine with a short handle on the bottom.
"I felt sure this was decidedly better than the boxes commonly sold . . . and could be made much cheaper than the old-fashioned contrivances," Holmes wrote later in The Philadelphia Photographer. He also believed that money could be made from the device, but he wasn't looking for profit, so he tried to give the design away to anyone who would manufacture it.
"I showed it to one or two dealers in Boston, offering them the right to make all they could by manufacturing the pattern, asking them nothing," Holmes wrote. "They looked at the homely mechanism as a bachelor looks on the basket left at his door, with an unendorsed infant crying in it."
But hobbyists saw the value of the device right away. Holmes's friend Joseph Bates was a wealthy merchant and amateur photographer, and after he saw the design, he decided to build one of the viewers for his own use. Bates improved on Holmes's prototype in a few key ways, including the addition of a focus adjustment slide and wire card holders, and after he built one for himself, he made and sold a few more to fellow stereoscopy enthusiasts. From there it caught on quickly, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Holmes-Bates stereoscope was as ubiquitous in American homes as the television would be a hundred years later.