A brief history of VR

With the recent high street shelf-clearing explosion of VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and Valve StreamSight, it’s tempting to think of VR technology as a new concept. Even those familiar with the apparatus might be surprised to learn just how far back it goes.

The exact origins of VR are disputed, but the concept of immersing an individual in an environment that blurs the lines between the actual and the artificial first surfaced in the 1930s. Avant-garde French playwright, Antonin Artaud conceived of a form of immersive theatre that did away with a reliance on the spoken word. He felt it was inferior, “…compared to space, thundering with images and crammed with sounds.” He instead advocated, “…a theatre in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”

Though the technology available at the time could not quite match Artaud’s slightly ominous ambitions, it wasn’t long in coming. In 1962, cinematographer – and for many the grandfather of VR – Morton Heilig built the Sensorama. User’s would sit in front of the bulky device, and put their faces into a ‘Telesphere Mask’. Once comfortable, they would be exposed to a wide-angle screen displaying stereoscopic 3-D images of such environments as a busy street. The experience was usually a simulation of riding a bike or motorcycle, replete with tilting seat and vents that would release puffs of wind, and typical street aromas.

It’s all a long way from the head mounted devices of today, many of which can be paired with chairs and body suits that simulate pressure and impact for maximum sensory immersion. In fact, the technology is becoming so advanced that it’s potential uses are already being explored for reasons other than simple adrenaline inducing entertainment.

VR and e-Learning

In more niche professions such as saturation diving, aerospace, pilot and high-level medical training, VR is already playing a part in developing certain skillsets without the risk of injury, or other real-world consequences of failure. It is better for a hyperbaric welder to practice his welds in a simulated environment, before igniting arcs to temperatures approaching 20,000ºC in an airtight, oxygen rich environment, 700ft beneath the surface. For reasons that require little elaboration.

In more ‘soft-skill’ industries, VR hasn’t had quite the same uptake. The stumbling-block, it will be unsurprising to learn, is cost. Such is the abundance now; actual headsets can be bought relatively cheaply. Those that are compatible with smartphones can be obtained for as little as £15, whilst specialised headsets, such as the Oculus Rift, generally retail at around £500. It is instead the cost of developing a digital environment that users can navigate through that makes the palms of CEOs clammy. Developers usually charge by the hour, and for a simple office layout setting, with the time needed to create a plausible, engaging experience, CEOs can expect to be signing cheques for upwards of £20,000. That’s a lot of money for a virtual environment that will soon become outdated, and may still not cover every aspect of training required to adequately progress employees.

In the meantime, e-Learning accessed through a flat-screen, non-immersive device such as a laptop or tablet, continues to transform the L&D strategies of organisations the world over, and across all kinds of industries. Environmentally friendly, increasing engagement levels by as much as 60%, saving precious revenues, and generating ROIs of up to £24 per employee for every £1 spent, current e-Learning platforms persist in performing admirably. Indeed, unless a company is willing to make a serious investment, and we’re talking here about six figures, then a VR alternative is unlikely to perform even nearly as well.

If there’s one thing the technological revolution has taught us though, it is that no technology can be written off because of current and prohibitively expensive prices. As advancements are made, and the tools to develop virtual realities become more prevalent and user-friendly, so too do prices start to fall. It is then that we are likely to see a greater interest from less extreme industries as to its training potential. Customer service workers, for example, could be exposed to virtual patrons sharing with them a grievance. They could then be monitored on how well they are able to resolve disputes without excruciating office role-plays and before they hit the shop floor.

For now, the development of ‘soft-skills’ by way of VR cannot be regarded as an advisable option. The question though, is how long before this ceases to be the case? In 1943, the president of IBM, Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Within 30 years, he’d been proved spectacularly wrong. In truth, it might be a similar amount of time, if not longer, before we see VR being used in the corporate world, but history tells us, it’ll be on its way.