In response to this week's launch of the Facebook-acquired virtual reality system Oculus Rift, many very excited tech writers are declaring that the future is finally here. As a concept, however, virtual reality has been around for quite awhile.
The term first appeared in a 1938 essay by the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who referred to the fictitious, illusory nature of theatre as the "la réalite virtuelle." But while Artaud gets the naming credit, the idea of a computer-simulated reality can really be traced back to experimental science fiction works like Stanley G. Weinbaum’s "Pygmalion's Spectacles" and Damien Broderick's The Judas Mandala.
In Weinbaum's 1935 short story, an elfin professor invents a pair of goggles that function as "a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."
Multi-sensory technology jumped off the page in the 1960s, thanks to Morton Heilig's forward thinking conception of "Experience Theatre." In 1962, the "Father of Virtual Reality," as he's known today, patented a mechanically-operated prototype of a reality simulator called the Sensorama. Sadly, Heilig was unable to secure funding for his futuristic gadget.
It's been more than half a century since Heilig's prototypical multi-sensory technology, yet virtual reality systems still haven't cracked into the consumer goods sector — Oculus, they say, will soon change this. But while it might take a little while before all of us have the world-building hardware sitting in our bedrooms, we are at least familiar with the idea of VR. This familiarity, I think, is largely due Hollywood's obsession with immersing its audience in alternative realities.
So before we all get sucked into the next phase of Zuckerberg-backed escapism, let's take a look back at some of the most amusing, bizarre, and iconic depictions of virtual reality in contemporary media: