The History of Virtual Worlds

The creative process of imagination can make something effectively real in the mind simply by thought. A person's imagined world need not, and often does not, depend on immediate sensory stimuli. Given this, it might be said that virtual realities were first realized through simple human interaction. Conversation depends on a listener's interpretation of what is said, assimilating what they perceive to be an experience or idea described by the speaker. Storytelling explicitly asks a listener to imagine a virtual world within the confines of their mind. A story is made real by an audience's interpretation of a narrative, effectively transporting a listener into the drama. As the arts and written languages developed, a person's story could be better understood and interpreted, improving listener immersion. A person is more likely to accept and effectively experience a virtual world with better imagery and carefully worded language. This development of idea sharing, from spoken word to more expressive forms of communication by the arts, serves as the first measureable advance in an evolution of immersive virtual realities.

This evolution can be traced through history, as ever more complicated means of expression have been invented out of emergent technologies. Dependent on the mediums of their age, storytellers are limited to the tools available to them. A user's immersion into a story is likewise dependent on the same available technology.

The Sensorama

With the advent of computing systems in the 20th century, the evolution of immersive virtual worlds has accelerated. Computers allow for the sorts of human created experiences we now define as a proper virtual worlds. The first to take advantage of computing technologies for the purposes of creating virtual experiences was Morton Helig. Perhaps inspired by the work of so many science fiction writers before him, Helig saw an opportunity in modern theater to directly interact with each of the audience's five senses. He outlined his vision for a multi-sensory theater in a paper published in 1955 entitled "The Future of Cinema”. Ten years later Helig patented the Sensorama, a device that simulated a bike ride through Brooklyn. The Sensorama synchronized sight, sound, smell, and movement to create for the user an overwhelmingly realistic afternoon in New York City. Helig's ideas never received the financial support needed to develop the technology.

Just a few years later, award winning computer scientists at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory began work on the world's first head mounted display system. Dubbed the "Sword of Damocles" after the classical Greek legend, the heavy mechanism that ran the rudimentary software hung above the user's head.

The Sword of Damocles

Tracking their movements, the device displayed wireframe rooms in perspective given a user's gaze.

Most publicly available virtual reality interfaces developed since the 1960s have not embraced the entire perceptual system like Damocles or Sensorama. Lacking processing power, virtual worlds on the first personal computers relied on the imagination of users to foster in-world emotional engagement. Multi User Dungeon, or MUD1, was the first true virtual world and set foundations upon which future realities were made. Developed in 1978 for use on a TELNET program, the text based adventure game allowed users with access to the network to interact in the virtual world.