Virtual Reality is Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

All new technologies are built on something that already exists, and VR is no different.  The early seeds of virtual reality harken back to the early 1800s. Sir Charles Wheatstone was the inventor of the Wheatstone Bridge, a device that measured electrical resistance and was found in almost every electronics lab on the planet. He also invented the concertina, which you might see being played by someone on a Parisian street corner, accompanied by a monkey on his shoulder.

I can see Sir Charles (Wheatstone, not Barkley) dancing around his lab playing his concertina, imagining what he might look like to someone peering through his laboratory window.  Maybe that was his moment of realization that each eye sees a slightly dissimilar image projected onto each retina, and converges into a single 3-dimensional image.

Whatever the inspiration, he published a paper in on June 21, 1838, that described the first Stereoscope. By placing two images of a solid object in the right concourse of the optic axes, they merged and appeared as one.

A decade later, Sir David “Punky” Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, improved the Stereoscope by utilizing lenses that combined two dissimilar binocular pictures to create a 3D effect.  He also invented the stereoscopic camera, enabling people to create content for the stereoscope. While Queen Victoria was running things in England back then, obviously content was still King, because, without the camera, the stereoscope was useless.

Brewster showed Queen Victoria his new gadget at an exhibition in 1851, and she was impressed. Soon she was posting 3D images on her Instagram account, and the stereoscope crossed the chasm.  Over a 3-month period, over 250,000 stereoscopes were sold along with a million prints. That’s about the same volume that the Oculus Quest sold in its first three months.

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Other popular influencers of the day weren’t quite as impressed as the Queen.  Oliver Wendell Holmes was frustrated and complained it game him headaches.  He improved the invention again, adding adjustments for viewing distances.  His invention, which was never patented, was copied by everyone thus becoming the most popular version.

Photography purists poo-pooed 3D photos as a gimmick. Like many trends in technology, they still recognized the market opportunity.  Many photographers took their classical 2D photos and sold a stereoscopic add-on for additional money.  Kind of like Capcom bolted on the VR version of Resident Evil 7 when it released it for the Playstation 4.

The demise of the stereograph came with the financial crash of 1873. Photographers were struggling and in an era before federal intellectual property protection began copying stereocards, leading to a decline in quality and viewing experience.  Only the biggest companies survived, leading to corporate control of what visual media was published.

As I was researching this history for my forthcoming book, I was taken by how similar the 1800’s version of how stereoscopes emerged to the recent virtual reality trend.

And inventor named Palmer Lucky stumbles onto an idea and builds a new 3D viewing device called Oculus Rift. He shows his gadget to John Carmack – the King of video games, who announces to his followers at the Game Developer Conference and people went crazy.  Lucky raised $2.5 million in Kickstarter to launch his company.

Not everyone was crazy about VR, with many people complaining about headaches and motion sickness.  Google commoditized the product with Cardboard, and bad VR and 360 videos swamped the market, leading to a degradation of the experience for many.

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In the end, Facebook bought Oculus, who wants to control what content makes it into VR.  History repeats itself, again.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Real Money from Virtual Reality – Operator’s Edition, which will be available in March of this year.  You can pre-order and get a signed copy here.