But how far back does virtual reality go?
Well, that's an interesting question, and I'm going to answer it from two perspectives:
First, in the 1950s, Morton Heilig decided that going to the theater should be a fully immersive experience. He began working on his Sensorama which finally came out in 1962. The only piece ever produced was of the viewer riding the streets of Brooklyn on a motorcycle. It was much more than 3D, also providing the vibrations of the motorcycle, the wind on the face, and the smells of the street as the viewer "rode" along. However, the cost of producing the 3D films was just too high, and the Sensorama failed to catch on.
Except in one thing... the building of virtual worlds. The video game industry has become adept at creating worlds, and there have been some amazing strides in that area in recent years. The one I think is the most important is the development of the virtual world in The Force Unleashed. It's the first game world to apply "real" physics to the environment rather than just having the same programmed response every time. Here's a short video that talks about it a bit (although this one is not as good at explaining the significance of what they're doing as the couple I saw back when the game was first coming out, but I couldn't find those):
Some of this technology is related to the stuff ILM developed for Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings so that the armies would behave... well, autonomously instead of having groups of soldiers all doing the same thing.
So that's kind of where we are, right now, but from where did all of this come from from a fiction standpoint?
For that, we're going to go back to 1935 and the short story "Pygmalion's Spectacles" by Stanley Weinbaum. In the story, a professor has invented a pair of goggles that allows you to experience a movie as if you were in the movie including interacting with the characters. How familiar does that sound?
Remember Stanislaw Lem (from this post)? Well, in 1960, he had a short story, "IJON TICHY'S MEMORIES," in which a scientist creates an entire virtual world (and, evidently, traps people within it). Trapped in this virtual world is another scientist who creates a virtual world. Yes, within the first one.
And, of course, there's William Gibson with Neuromancer, which I find to be less of virtual reality, as such, and more just a visual representation of cyberspace, even if it is a virtual world.
We also have to jump right back to this post about Snow Crash.
In movies, we have Tron and The Matrix as two of the best examples of virtual reality in fiction.
For me, there was Tad Williams' Otherland series. Virtual reality is to the point where people have jacks implanted in the base of their skulls so that they can plug directly into the virtual network and experience everything by having their brains directly stimulated. It's interesting, though, in that during the course of the books, he shows us how the technology evolved in the world he created. What's interesting is that some of our newest advances in virtual reality have an eerie resemblance to antiquated VR tech in his books.
When VR becomes a thing that people can enter into and experience as if it was real life, people will not want to leave it. There are already issues with people and the virtual worlds they already have access to, and these worlds are not... well, we don't experience them as if they are happening to us. But there have been cases of child neglect and abuse from parents becoming too immersed in these worlds. There have been cases of people going without food or water to the point of death. And these are just worlds that you experience through a keyboard. Imagine what it will be like when you can have full sensory input. Feel things. Smell things. Even taste things. And it can be better than your life in the "real" world.
Of all things I've talked about in this series, this is the one that I find the scariest. I think we're closer to realizing this one than many of the others. And, more than any of the others, this is the one into which we will go voluntarily.
[Oh, and I did some more digging, and I found the other videos I was talking about.]