A Brief History of Virtual Reality: Major Events and Ideas

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Jump into the history of VR with this overview of its major ideas, figures, and advancements.

[Featured Image] A VR worker tests virtual realty goggles at his desk.

Virtual reality (VR) creates a unique human-computer interaction in which users are immersed in an interactive virtual world. If that sounds like something out of science fiction, it’s because – like so much of our technology today – that’s exactly where the idea comes from. Want to learn more?  

In this article, you’ll learn more about VR and its history, including some of the key figures, technologies, and events that have made it possible. And, at the end, you’ll also find suggested online courses and specializations that can help you start building your own VR abilities today. 

What is virtual reality (VR)? 

Virtual reality (VR) refers to artificial, computer-generated environments that can be interacted with using specially designed equipment, such as VR headsets and controllers. Generally, virtual reality is meant to provide an immersive experience for users in which they’re able to interact with a digital environment in much the same way that they do with the external, “real” world. 

VR equipment like headsets, hand-held controllers, and body sensors allow users to interact with digital environments, providing a means to see, hear, traverse, and “touch” the environment and its elements. While VR is most often used to play video games, it’s also used for a wide range of purposes, including running training simulations, remotely controlling robots, designing products and prototypes, and visualizing real-world, three-dimensional spaces like homes, crime scenes, and museums. 

The wide range of applications for VR technology has led to an increase in its overall development and adoption in recent years. According to research published on Statista, for example, the global revenue for consumer and enterprise VR grew from $8.3 billion in 2021 to $11.97 billion in 2022, a number which the authors project will increase even further to $28.84 billion by 2026 [1]. 

Timeline of virtual reality development

The development of virtual reality as both a concept and technology is complex. This is particularly true because the central idea of entering other “worlds” or “realities” is a common theme in world literature and religions dating back millennia. 

Do we begin a history of VR by discussing how the ancient Greeks described ways to enter Hades – one translation of which is the “unseen realm” – in their mythology? Or, do we focus on using perspective in Renaissance art and how it attempted to fool viewers’ eyes by making flat images appear three-dimensional? Or, maybe we explore the rich history of theatrical set design and the many ways some practitioners, such as Inigo Jones, attempted to create rich, immersive experiences for theatergoers in Renaissance England? 

There are a lot of potential historical threads to pick up for those interested in this fascinating subject. But, to help you get a better idea of how we’ve gotten to where we are today, below we break down just some of the major trends, concepts, and technological developments over the past one hundred years that helped make VR what it is today. 

1935 - ‘Pygmalion’s Spectacles’ is published

In 1935, Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum was published in Wonder Stories, a literary magazine focused on science fiction narratives. The story describes the transformative experience that Dan, a down-on-his-luck drunk, undergoes after donning a pair of futuristic goggles that transport him to an idyllic, simulated world called Paracosma. There, he falls in love with a woman, Galatea, who shows him around the hyper-realistic, yet illusory, world she inhabits. As Dan becomes more immersed in this new, idealized reality, he tries desperately to hold onto it but is ultimately forced to return to his bleak, unfulfilling life once the immersive film comes to an end. 

In addition to outlining the earliest contours of “virtual reality” as a concept, the story also includes references to a wide range of literary and philosophical influences, including the work of 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, the Greek mythological story of Pygmalion and Galatea, and the allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. The heady mix of philosophy and technology proved prescient as many future VR developers would themselves become preoccupied with similar ideas.

1955 - 1962: Morton Heilig’s ‘Sensorama’ 

In Pygmalion’s Spectacles, author Stanley G. Weinbaum described how a technologically advanced headset could create a simulated world by reproducing the five senses. Twenty years later, American inventor and cinematographer Morton Heilig elaborated on this same idea in a 1955 article titled “The Cinema of the Future” that advocated for making such a device an actual reality. There, Heilig detailed how an immersive cinematic experience could be created using specially designed equipment capable of replicating the five senses for audience members within a simulated environment. Boldly, Heilig proclaimed that this new art form wouldn’t simply be a visual art but instead an “art of consciousness” that effectively allowed individuals to experience the world as others do [2].

But, Heilig didn’t just dream of this futuristic technology – he actually built it himself. 

Over the next several years, Heilig designed, constructed, and patented the first head-mounted display (HMD) and virtual reality simulator. Known as the Telesphere Mask and the Sensorama Simulator, respectively, these devices were remarkably ahead of their time: while the mask provided wearers with an immersive stereoscopic experience, the simulator was capable of playing 3D motion pictures that could be accompanied by seat vibrations, stereo sound, scents, and even the sensation of wind in their hair. And, to make that all possible, Heilig also invented an original 3D motion film camera and a 3D film projector. 

Yet, despite his best efforts to market and commercialize his inventions, Heilig struggled to sell them to businesses, who mostly saw them as costly novelties rather than breakthrough pieces of technology. However, this didn’t change Heilig’s vision for how they could be used. In his patent filing for the Sensorama Simulator, he notes that it could be used not only for entertainment but also for education and training purposes –  exactly how many organizations actually use VR today. 

1965 - 1968: Ivan Sutherland and the Sword of Damocles 

Several years after Morton Heilig built his head-mounted display and 3D film simulator, Ivan Sutherland began publicly theorizing about how a similar system could be used to interact with computers. In a paper titled “The Ultimate Display” that he wrote in 1965, Sutherland outlined how computer-based environments could be interacted with using specially designed display and input tools, such as force-feedback joysticks, and eye-tracking sensors. 

“There is no reason why the objects displayed by a computer have to follow the ordinary rules of physical reality with which we are familiar,” Sutherland proclaimed. And he concluded, “With appropriate programming, such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked. [3]” 

Much like Heilig, Sutherland didn’t just speculate about such a device – he actually began developing one. But, while Heilig approached the task from his perspective as a cinematographer, Sutherland tackled it as a computer scientist. 

In 1968, Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull showcased the first head-mounted display (HMD) with three-dimensional tracking, which they humorously called “the Sword of Damocles” due to its heavy weight and need to be attached to the ceiling overhead. The device used stereoscopic vision and allowed users to move around a three-dimensional, computer-generated space that was dynamically adjusted by the computer based on the user’s position. Furthermore, the headset demonstrated the first instance of augmented reality (AR) with its ability to overlap static computer elements over a view of the actual room in which the wearer was located. 

When was the first VR helmet made? 

The first head-mounted display (HMD) was patented by Martin Heilig in 1960, but was likely built earlier in the late 1950s. The first HMD with an interactive computer-generated, virtual environment was showcased by computer scientists Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull at the University of Utah in 1968. Finally, the Philco corporation introduced the first head-tracking HMD in 1961 and called it the ‘Headsight.’


1969 - 1975: Myron Krueger’s Interactive digital art

Not long after Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull demonstrated the very first VR HMD, Myron Krueger, a PhD candidate studying computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collaborated with a group of artists to create a computer-controlled environment as an art piece. Titled “Glowflow,” the piece consisted of a darkened room with floor sensors that triggered the production of synthesizer sounds and the colorful glow of phosphorescent pigment in glass tubes as participants walked through the room. 

The experience intrigued Krueger, who was interested in exploring new ways for humans to interact with computers, so he began working on another art project alone. 

The next year, Krueger created “Metaplay,” an art piece in which two separate rooms were connected by a closed-circuit video feed that allowed an artist in one room to interact with guests in another by drawing on a video feed of them projected to them. In 1971, meanwhile, Krueger made “Psychic Space,” a piece in which users would interact with a computer in another room using floor sensors to produce the sound of musical notes or to play a maze game. Krueger’s exploration into early computer art culminated in 1975 with “Videoplace,” another interactive piece in which participants in separate rooms could interact with each other’s silhouettes via video projections controlled by a computer system. 

In addition to creating early versions of immersive VR environments, also known as cave automatic virtual environments (CAVEs), Krueger coined the term “artificial reality” in his 1974 dissertation thesis. The term gained wider recognition when Krueger published his dissertation in 1983 under the title “Artificial Reality.”

1970 - 79: Early institutional investment in VR

Although a handful of researchers and enthusiasts mostly explored virtual reality, the 1970s saw some early institutional investment into the technology. 

In 1972, for example, General Electric (GE) unveiled a computerized VR flight simulator with a cockpit surrounded by three screens that mimicked the 180-degree view that pilots experienced while flying. In 1978, meanwhile, researchers at MIT produced the Aspen Movie Map, an interactive map of Aspen, Colorado that allowed users to take a virtual tour of the city in a way similar to how Google’s street view is used today. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and led by computer scientist Andrew Lippman, the team created the interactive map by stitching together footage captured from a four-camera set-up attached to a car that was then layered atop three-dimensional models of the space. 

These events indicate a shift in how academic institutions, corporations, and even the government thought about virtual reality technology. Rather than being a novelty, VR technology was slowly gaining traction as a tool that had potential as a practical tool for training and research purposes. 

1980 - 1989: Early commercial VR technology 

The 1980s saw increased commercially available VR technology marketed for various uses. In 1980, for example, StereoGraphics Corporation began selling stereographic glasses that allowed users to see images on CRT displays in 3D. In 1984, computer scientist Jaron Lanier founded VPL Research, a company focused on developing virtual reality technology. The company developed a range of products including a VR HMD called the EyePhone, a full-body suit with input sensors known as the Data Suit, and an input glove named the Data Glove. In addition to creating these devices, Lanier is credited with coining the term “virtual reality” to describe the environment with which his devices interacted. 

Although VPL ultimately filed for bankruptcy after just six years, their technology didn’t go unnoticed by others. In 1989, for instance, Mattel designed the Power Glove, a wearable controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that allowed players to control gameplay using their hand motion. However, despite its initial financial success, the Power Glove ultimately suffered from poor performance and a lack of games that took advantage of it. 

1990 - 1999: Growing institutional and commercial interest

The 1990s saw sustained interest in VR for both commercial and institutional purposes. In 1991, NASA Scientist Antonio Medina created a VR system called Computer Simulated Teleoperation to drive the Mars Rover from Earth. Later, in 1997, a group of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and the Atlanta VA Medical Center used VR for exposure therapy as a part of a comprehensive treatment program for Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD. 

However, perhaps the most ubiquitous way that VR was used throughout the 1990s was for video games. In 1990, Jonathan Waldern and his company Virtuality demonstrated a VR arcade machine at a UK trade show. The machines were later rolled out to arcades, where players would don VR helmets and shoot approaching dinosaurs in a prehistoric setting. In 1994, meanwhile, Sega released the VR-1, a large VR amusement park attraction developed in collaboration with Virtuality. 

The next year, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a portable game console that allowed users to play games in 3D stereoscopic vision. Unfortunately, the system was difficult to play, featured a headache-inducing red-screen, and lacked a library of compelling games. Ultimately, the Virtual Boy failed to attract consumers and was quickly discontinued by the company within a year. 

2000 - 2010: Interest in VR declines

The early 2000s saw a marked decline in interest in VR development. The disappointing sales of VR technology throughout the 1980s and 90s combined with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 meant that few had an interest in investing in such expensive tech. 

Yet, despite this fact, there was still some notable commercialization of prior advancements in VR that were made during this period. In 2007, for example, Google introduced Street View in Google Maps, allowing users to traverse cities like how users toured Aspen in MIT’s Aspen Movie Map. And, in 2010 Google added a stereoscopic vision function to StreetView that allowed users to see the environment in 3D using rudimentary 3D glasses. 

2011 - present: VR revival and increased adoptions

After experiencing declining interest during the late 1990s and early 2000s, VR saw an explosion of investment from major businesses and institutions in the 2010s and onward. A key reason for this renewed interest occurred in 2012, when Palmer Luckey founded Oculus VR and launched a successful KickStarter campaign to fund the creation of the company’s VR gaming headset, the Oculus Rift. In 2014, Palmer sold Oculus VR to Meta (then called Facebook) who envisioned the device as being used for tasks other than gaming, such as remote doctor visits or watching sports from a courtside position.

The sale of Oculus to Meta triggered a deluge of interest in VR and soon other companies announced plans to release similar products. Some notable consumer products released or announced during this period include Playstation VR (2016), Facebook’s line of Oculus and Quest headsets (2016 - present), and Apple’s Vision Pro (2024). In 2021, Facebook was renamed Meta and announced that the company would focus on developing technologies, games, and services for the “Metaverse,” a connection of virtual reality worlds. 

Read more: What Is the Metaverse and How Can I Get Involved in It?

So, when was VR invented? 

As noted earlier, there isn’t a single, definable moment when virtual reality (VR) as either a concept or technology was completely invented. While the idea has been around for many decades, the technology to make it possible has often lagged behind the vision that many have of “true VR.” Nonetheless, capable, commercial VR technology is now widely available for users at a wide range of price points – and is expected to become more capable as the technology progresses in the coming years. 


Start building VR skills today

VR technology has advanced considerably over the past half century. Prepare for the next wave of VR technology and entertainment by taking a relevant VR course or specialization on Coursera today. 

In Daydream’s VR and 360 Video Production course, you’ll learn how to create VR content with a step-by-step guide that takes just 13 hours to complete. In the University of London’s Virtual Reality Specialization, you’ll explore the history of VR, the hardware that makes it possible, and how to create 3D VR environments. 

Article sources


Statista. “Consumer and enterprise virtual reality (VR) market revenue worldwide from 2021 to 2026, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1221522/virtual-reality-market-size-worldwide/.” Accessed January 26, 2024. 

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