Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

A short history of virtual and augmented reality with lots of links to learn more.

People have changed the world around them, and thought about how to change the world, since the start of human history. The idea of hand held tools to transport people to different worlds, however, appears to be a mostly new idea. The popularity of HG Wells and his science fiction novels, for example, led readers and writers to think and write about how technology might change or replace the world.

What we call virtual reality can be traced back at least to a short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, published in 1935. The spectacles are goggles that, when worn, transport the narrator into a paradise with people, sounds, smells, and touch. Yet the narrator is aware he actually sits in a chair in a hotel room as he wears the goggles.

Virtual reality and augmented reality also evolved for practical reasons. In the 1920s, pilots had to learn how to fly with instruments. Early pilots flew mostly by calculating fuel, airspeed, wind resistance, and other factors to determine how far they could fly. Once in the air, they flew based on touch and experience.

In 1927, Edwin Link of Binghamton, NY built a Link Trainer, a metal frame flight simulator that used instruments connected to pumps and switches to simulate actual instrument flight. Pilots could train without the restrictions of weather and availability of planes and teachers. The Link Trainer eventually added movies and were heavily used in World War II. In the 1950s, flight simulators evolved into what we’re familiar with today. Here’s how a Link Trainer worked in the 1940s:

Development of personal virtual and augmented reality began in the 1960s with research done by Ivan Sutherland at MIT and the University of Utah. He and his students created the first head mounted displays and started to solve problems like eye tracking and depth perception. Jaron Lanier in the 1980s helped popularize the idea of virtual reality, and at least one attempt at a virtual reality game failed. However, computers were not powerful enough, a few technical problems had to be solved, and the cost of the technology limited its appeal.

The image below, from the current issue, presents this story as text and images. Right mouse-click the image to open it in a new tab and see it full size. Or download the PDF file.


Learn More

What is Virtual Reality?

History of Virtual Reality

How Does Virtual Reality Work?

Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality

Stanley G. Weinbaum

Link Trainer

Flight Simulators

Ivan Sutherland

Sword of Damocles

Head Mounted Display


Jaron Lanier

Virtual Boy Game

HTC Vive

Oculus Rift

Samsung Gear VR

Playstation VR

Google Cardboard

Fove Headset

OSVR Headset


  • Tim Slavin

    Tim is an award-winning writer and technologist who enjoys teaching tech to non-technical people. He has many years experience with web sites and applications in business, technical, and creative roles. He and his wife have two kids, now teenagers, who are mad about video games.

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