VR was everywhere at NAB, and at CES this year.

Virtual reality is an immersive experience that involves multiple senses, and, most importantly, responds to the intentional interaction of the viewer. From the earliest days of synchronized film and sound playback, the illusion of being in a different place or time, and generating an emotional response to the experience, has been the goal of most modern communication and entertainment mediums.

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In VR, this illusion is referred to as 'presence,' where not only the sights and sounds (and other sensory input) are believable, but the ‘show' itself reacts to the participant's actions in a plausible way.

It isn't hard to imagine how different the experience of browsing through a gallery of images can be when they are not just thumbnails on a tight grid, but rather 'virtually' hung by the artist in a spacious VR room that mimics a physical gallery space. VR video adds the active immersion of being in the middle of a busy plaza, or riding inside a rally car during a nighttime ice race. The opportunities to share even simple, daily events become less about what was in the frame at the time, and more about what the whole location felt like.

VR differs from flat, 2D photos by requiring at least a seamless 360-degree view, and eventually full freedom of 3D motion.


First, let's get some semantics out of the way. 'Virtual reality,' or VR, has generally been applied to 3D computer-generated graphics. There are some who say that anything that starts with a camera pointed at the real world is not VR. This ignores some of the history of VR (see below), as well as the coincidence that interactive panoramic images and videos on the web are displayed as textures on the inside of a 3D cube (or sphere, in some cases). There are also ways to create realistic 3D data from photographs, and from spherical panoramas in particular, both of which currently offer greater realism than 3D graphics created without the aid of photography.

While we could separate photography from 3D graphics by dogmatically referring to 360 x 180-degree images as 'spherical panoramas,' and try to demarcate 2D/3D hybrid technologies as 'not photography,' this would be unfair. Therefore, this article will still refer to VR as both an immersive experience, and something that a camera can capture. 

This primer will touch on the various technologies and companies involved in VR, but the underlying theme is on how conventional photography and cinematography influence VR, and how VR will influenced them in return. 

History of VR

(Clockwise from upper left) Sensorama, Battlezone, Virtuality arcade, USAF virtual cockpit, UIC CAVE, Telepresence HMD.

The term 'virtual reality' was originally coined (in French) by Antonin Artaud in his 1938 essays on the nature of theatrical performances, so it's rather fitting that the first functional VR experience, Sensorama, was conceived and patented (in 1957) by cinematographer Morton Heilig. In 1961, Heilig also patented a head-mounted, stereoscopic display system. While these inventions relied on pre-recorded films with very limited interaction, they introduced the concept of a viewer being immersed in a different environment; including the sights, sounds, smells and even windspeed of the environment being represented.

Though the entirely analog Sensorama never really took off, the concept of immersion was a core aim for early computer-generated 3D graphics. Most pioneering modern VR development was focused on military and aerospace training, where it is much safer, easier, and ultimately cheaper, to teach someone how to react to difficult situations in a virtual environment. The first 3D VR displays showed only glowing wireframes against a black screen (a la Battlezone), while the physical surroundings mimicked a real cockpit or driver's seat, complete with hydraulics to pitch the cabin during the experience.

In the 1980's and early 90's, the increasing visual fidelity of real-time computer graphics (driven both by industrial and entertainment uses) promised more realistic virtual environments, and the first wave of hype for consumer VR built up, entering popular culture with arcade entertainment like the Virtuality systems, and creative works like Neuromancer and The Lawnmower Man.

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Once this wave of hype broke on the shores of limited computing power, minimal content, and vaporware consumer displays (anyone remember SegaVR?), the relevant technology continued to advance in a consistent, but much quieter, fashion. Real-time 3D computer graphics progressed from plasticky representations on expensive workstations, to the increasing visual realism of PC and console games. In 1994, Apple introduced QuickTime VR as a very simple, portable way to display panoramic content with the freedom to look around, and this extension of QuickTime quickly became known for real estate 'virtual tours' and other early forms of photography-based VR on a computer.


This content requires HTML5 with CSS3 3D Transforms or WebGL.
HTML5 static 360 VR sample - click this link for the VR headset version. (Made with Pano2VR)

In 2003, Linden Labs created Second Life, an entirely virtual 'social world' in which users could interact using human-looking avatars within an entirely synthetic, and user expandable, 3D world. Connecting people via the internet was not new, nor did Second Life initially support VR headsets with stereoscopic rendering, but this remains a good example of a successful shared 'virtual reality', in the original theatrical sense.

The 2007 introduction of Google Street View democratized the idea of spherical panoramic imagery (360 x 180 degrees of coverage) to immerse a viewer in various locations in the real world. This blending of photographic content with geographic data has broadened consumer acceptance of photographic VR, while the 2014 introduction of Google Cardboard (an inexpensive way to turn a modern smartphone into a VR headset) allows this vast amount of panoramic data to be viewed in a more natural, immersive way. 

The new hype of modern VR

Recent advancements in consumer electronics have reinvigorated virtual reality and given it new vigor, as well as inspiring new generations of researchers, entrepreneurs, and content creators. The ever-increasing computing power and screen resolutions of smartphones, combined with their built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers (useful for head tracking), have made these ubiquitous devices almost ideal for repurposing as a viewer for VR games, images, and video. 

Combining a phone with the simple mechanics of a Google Cardboard-type viewer, VR photos, apps and games (as well as New York Times articles)  means that VR content can be appreciated by a wider audience.

Google Cardboard - a $15 immersive display for anyone to try out.

Prior to Cardboard, most attempts at making a smartphone into a viewing platform were limited to stereographic toys, without enough software and hardware polish to make it a good experience. Samsung changed this by partnering with Oculus to produce the (currently $99) Gear VR headset, which is more than just a pair of lenses and a phone holder. Gear VR has its own accelerometers and gyroscope, as well as a USB connected control-pad, while Oculus provides a content store and software to enhance the experience. All of this pushes accessibility up from the bottom.

The same technology from smartphones has driven down the component cost of higher-end systems for virtual reality and augmented reality (AR), leading to consumer-level, dedicated, head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and extensions to game consoles like Playstation VR. While the initial adoption of these systems may be mainly with hard-core gamers and technophiles, the experiences and content being developed for these systems can be more ambitious and immersive, which in turn will draw more users to the hardware. The VR ecosystem is spreading rapidly, and spherical VR photos and videos are frequently the first experience most consumers will have.

Follow the money

Recent years have seen explosive growth in terms of business investments into VR, from the display systems (Facebook buying Oculus for $2 billion in 2014), to content creation (Nikon and Samsung have recently announced consumer 360 cameras, and Ricoh is on v.3 of theirs), while various VR startups raised over $658 million in funding just in the past year. The established games industry has already spent millions of dollars preparing for the 3D VR gaming revolution, which many analysts now say is no longer an 'if' proposition, but rather a 'when.'

Consulting and auditing firm Deloitte has predicted that the VR market (for content and devices) will hit $1 billion in sales during 2016 alone. Meanwhile, the games and VR consulting firm Digi-Capital goes even further to say that by 2020, the virtual reality and augmented reality markets will be worth around $120 billion. These market predictions are not based on advances in research labs and high-end applications, but rather from the groundswell of video game and mobile technology, along with increasingly diverse content.

As Alexandre Jenny, the Senior Director of Immersive Media at GoPro, puts it; "We are no longer wondering 'will VR change the world,' we are in the stage of 'how will VR change the world?' VR is certainly the best way to give someone an immersive experience, and that fact is really disruptive in many industries."

Commercial applications

Aside from research and purely artistic uses of VR (both of which have a long and fruitful history), there are numerous commercial applications for virtual reality, and many more are being developed as the tech progresses. Below are just a few examples.