Virtual reality as a concept first appeared in a 1930s science fiction story. It used a pair of goggles that allowed the wearer to experience a fantasy world through three-dimensional images created with photographic projection, touch, smell and taste. Little did the author of the story, Stanley G. Weinbaum, know that in the 21st century, we would come pretty close to what he envisioned.
Now that we have found the precursor, when was the moment that modern VR, as we know it today, came to life?
2011 — The first prototype
In 2011, a young enthusiast, Palmer Luckey, created the prototype for the Oculus Rift VR headset. He was only 17. His goal was to create an inexpensive headset for gamers that was more effective than what was currently available on the market. As he was an avid collector of different VR headsets that had been created in the decade prior, he created a headset in his garage using available and off-the-shelf hardware. For example, for the screen, he used a Samsung Galaxy Note screen. As we can see, one young enthusiast can start a modern technical revolution on their own.
2012 — The Kickstarter campaign
Palmer Luckey posted what he had achieved on a dedicated forum. It soon attracted the attention of one person who was also really interested in VR. That person was John Carmack, a giant in the gaming industry, who had sparked a 3D revolution with games like Doom and Quake. As Palmer Luckey told Eurogamer in 2013, “He ended up seeing my head-mounted display work and asked me, ‘Hey, what you have looks interesting — is there any chance I could buy one?’ He’s John Carmack, I just gave him one instead — you can’t turn him down.” They presented the headset at E3, and a couple of months later they launched it on Kickstarter. So, in 2012, this revolutionary headset raised over $2.4 million via a Kickstarter funding campaign. It had over 9500 backers, proving that people were extremely interested in this innovative technology.
2013 — Development Kit 1
The Oculus VR Development Kit 1 (DK1) was released in 2013. This device was inexpensive and perfect for game developers, as it was the first inexpensive headset that developers could start experimenting with. The headset had no controllers, only a keyboard and mouse. You had to use it sitting down, and its resolution was just 640 × 800 per eye. From today’s perspective, it is almost unusable due to the lack of features, movement or resolution. At the time, though, it was an eye-opening breakthrough and a glimpse of what the future could hold. Despite its limits, everybody who tried it felt completely immersed and transported somewhere else. They criticized only its low resolution.
2014 — Development Kit 2
Development Kit 2 (DK2) was released in 2014. It took a slightly different approach regarding connectivity. There were significant improvements in resolution, as the screen was switched from LCD to OLED. But the biggest improvement was the possibility of moving your head in space. Before, the only thing you could do was to rotate your head. With DK2, you could move your head backward, forward or to the side. So, if you stood near a virtual wall, you could move your head to the side to see what’s around the corner. Developers had to go beyond WASD movement to create experiences that weren’t possible until then.
Later in 2014, Oculus was sold to Facebook for about $2.4 billion, paving the way for Facebook’s bigger vision regarding the future of VR. As Facebook had purchased a company that didn’t even have a consumer product on the market, this was a moment that shook the whole industry and demonstrated that VR was here to stay.
2015 — Following the acquisition
Following the Oculus acquisition, the industry reignited in 2015. Samsung got in on the act, which was not surprising. Samsung partnered with Oculus to produce the Gear VR headset, which sold at a great price and was compatible with high-end Samsung Galaxy devices. The smartphone acts as a screen while the headset plays the role of a controller and shows the field of view. Moreover, its inertial measurement unit is used for rotational tracking. It was an inexpensive way for people to try out VR and showed us a future where we won’t need to be plugged into a computer to experience VR.
Subsequently, Google released its own version of a VR headset. It was based on a low-cost cardboard VR viewer for smartphones. Although it was much less expensive (by a lot) than the Gear VR, so that more people could afford one, the comfort level and the overall quality weren’t good, as it didn’t have the dedicated hardware that the Gear had. Many thought that it gave people a poor impression of VR. Still, at the time, there were some interesting use cases that weren’t possible before because of its price. A whole school class could experience VR together, like traveling the world with Google Expedition programs.
2016 — Six degrees of freedom
2016 was an exciting year. Consumer electronics company HTC was rapidly losing its valuable smartphone market share, so diversified into VR headsets. In partnership with Valve (Steam), it launched its first VR headset, the HTC Vive. This device has 6DoF tracking and two HTC Vive controllers. With 6DoF, the user could simply move around in the VR world, which was important in raising immersion to a whole other level. Many believe that this was the final piece needed for core VR functionality, as you could now move freely around in space and interact fully with the environment. Many people who had already tried VR had not been impressed but were completely blown away when they realized the vast potential of VR.
In October 2016, Sony released its PlayStation VR, the first to be powered by a video game console. This headset was designed to run via a PS4 and was sold alongside PlayStation Move controllers as an input device. VRcompare states that: “As of 2020, PlayStation VR was the best-selling VR headset released up to that date, with over 5 million units sold.”
In 2016, Oculus released yet another model of its VR headset, the Oculus Rift (CV1), this time built for consumers. It came with two 6DoF controllers. Quite light on the head, weighing only 470 g, this headset was a real charmer in the industry but has a much more complicated setup than the Vive.
2017 — Oculus
Inspired by the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus released the Oculus Go, which was developed in partnership with Qualcomm and Xiaomi and did not require a PC. The Oculus Go uses positional 3DoF tracking and could be purchased with only a single controller. With this headset, the market had branched into standalone VR and PC-connected VR.
The CV1’s successor, the Oculus Rift S, was developed in partnership with Lenovo. It was a much better product since it provides a 6DoF experience with inside-out tracking, which means that no external sensors were required, unlike the Vive and previous Oculus Rifts. This was a big leap for Oculus, as at that time, the Oculus headset had become a simple plug & play solution for the consumer market.
2018 — Serious hardware
The HTC Vive Pro was launched in 2018. This headset has two AMOLED displays, and of course, two 6DoF controllers. This headset is still available today and is known as a “VR enthusiast’s dream”.
2019 — The holy grail of VR
The Oculus Quest came out in 2019, right after the Oculus Rift S. It has two OLED screens and is controlled by two 6DoF controllers. With 6DoF already integrated into the device, no external cords or connections are required. The launch price was $399 for the 64GB version, and $499 for the 128GB. The Oculus Quest was a breakthrough in the industry, and an estimated 400,000 units were sold.
The popularity of this headset was due to the combination of its price and its ease of use. As a standalone headset, it has all the core VR functionality needed for a great experience. Now, you could just put the headset on and walk freely around in a virtual environment, without having to worry about cables or setting it up.
2020 — Oculus Quest 2 conquers the market
We finish this brief history of VR with the Oculus Quest 2, a cheaper and slightly improved version of the Oculus Quest.
The Oculus Quest 2 is another standalone headset. It was released in 2020 and has a splendid 120 Hz refresh rate. It comes with two third-generation 6DoF controllers, called the Oculus Touch.
The two biggest advances are: (1) You can connect it to a PC so that it acts as a standalone headset but with the high-end experience of a desktop headset. (2) It has out-of-the-box hand tracking. You don’t need controllers anymore but can manipulate your virtual environment using just your hands.
According to vr-compare.com, “Oculus Quest 2 is around 20% lighter and 15% smaller than its predecessor, the Oculus Quest, with a refresh rate of 120 Hz, improving on the 72 Hz of the original Quest.”
If you are wondering if it is any good, we can only say it is the best VR headset you can buy today.
During the last five years, plenty of companies have placed their headsets on the market, like Microsoft, Pimax, Pico, Valve, HP and many others. Their goal is always to develop hardware with a better screen, lower price, enhanced comfort and a simpler setup. The number of headsets being developed and released has sometimes been so high that many were quickly discontinued as newer, better and more up-to-date devices came on the market. Seeing where we have got to so far, we are excited about the direction VR headsets will go in the future. Interested in acquiring a VR headset? Check the specs here.