Until recently, virtual reality had been something of a fantasy for storytellers and technologists. As long ago as 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G Weinbaum described something like virtual reality in a short story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles.
“But listen – a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”
Technologists might still be working on smell and taste, but Albert Ludwig’s “magic spectacles” eerily foreshadow the current prominence for headsets and 360-degree games, videos and virtual worlds.
Since Ludwig’s magic spectacles found their way into print, there have been decades of experimentation around virtual reality, from the first head-mounted VR system in the late 1960s to the first commercial products in the 1980s – not to mention Hollywood’s interpretation in the1992 film The Lawnmower Man, which shaped mainstream perceptions of virtual reality, or VR, for some time afterwards.
The current age of virtual reality began in 2010, when American teenager Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of a VR headset that would evolve into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, he launched a $250,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to commercialise it – and $2.4m of pledges later, the tech industry’s interest in VR was reborn. Two years after that, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, liked the Rift so much he bought the company for $2bn.
Several competitors have emerged since then, from the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR to smartphone-powered headsets such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, hundreds of developers are making VR games and apps, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, and Facebook and YouTube have jumped on the bandwagon with 360-degree videos.
But if you’re new to virtual reality, where should you start? In the absence of a passing professor with magic specs, here’s everything you need to know about hardware, apps and games.