A demonstration of an early VR rig at a 1993 trade show is a reminder that people in the 90s were wearing worse things than bad suits. (Alex Brandon/AP)
In these heady days of tech innovation it’s easy to lose track of what’s important—and what’s real. Gadgets come and go, their survival often decided by tastemakers whose intentions may not be to guide a product into permanence. What’s hot today may be cool tomorrow, and some toys can take a long time to get off the ground. So it is with the virtual reality headset—a old idea finding renewed interest with the rise of smartphones. Early models were for gaming (Sega and Nintendo both had versions in the 1990s) and military-industrial applications, like flight simulation. Today filmmakers are rushing to shoot in the VR format and schools are handing out headsets as learning aids. Even newspapers are getting into the game, providing cheap cardboard versions which transport you from the kitchen table to foreign battle fields over breakfast.
All of this is to say, virtual reality has done little to prove itself a complement to actual reality. With excessive screen time already taking its toll, it seems unlikely people will want to start holding their phones even closer to their eyes for extended periods. Perhaps the only thing more nauseating than using VR is the unquestioning embrace of it by the media. But then people know not to believe everything they read, right?
Hitting the virtual ski slopes at Tokyo’s NEC Corp in 1992. (Oinuma/AP)
Open wide: Canadians enjoyed virtual reality videos at the dentist’s office in 1994. (Peter Power/Getty)
Attendees try a virtual reality game at a Beijing computer exhibition in 1999. (Chien-min Chung/AP)
Training on a VR simulator called “Percival” at the National Equestrian School in France, 1997. (Frederic Pitchal/Getty)
VR headset for reading canned goods ingredients in 1997. (Peter Power/Getty)
1: A 2006 Toshiba prototype was memorable. (Shuji Kajiyama/AP) 2: Canon in 2009. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty) 3: Robert De Niro dives into the VR experience in 2014. (Cindy Ord/Getty)
French schoolchildren experience the great outdoors via cardboard VR headsets In 2015. (Vincent Capman/Getty Images)
A trade fair attendee in Germany, 2015. (Zhang Fan/Getty)
World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 2016. (Matthew Lloyd/Getty)
Oculus Rift is revolutionizing the museum experience in 2016. (Beth J. Harpaz/Ap)
Chicago, 2016. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty)
The New York Times debuted its VR system in 2015. (Neilson Barnard/Getty)
Lavishing attention on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset in San Francisco, 2015. (Eric Risberg/AP)