1.3 History Repeats

Staring at rectangles

How did we arrive to VR as it exists today? We start with a history that predates what most people would consider to be VR, but includes many aspects crucial to VR that have been among us for tens of thousands of years. Long ago, our ancestors were trained to look at the walls and imagine a 3D world that is part of a story. Figure 1.23 shows some examples of this. Cave paintings, such as the one shown in Figure 1.23(a) from 30,000 years ago. Figure 1.23(b) shows a painting from the European Middle Ages. Similar to the cave painting, it relates to military conflict, a fascination of humans regardless of the era or technology. There is much greater detail in the newer painting, leaving less to the imagination; however, the drawing perspective is comically wrong. Some people seem short relative to others, rather than being further away. The rear portion of the fence looks incorrect. Figure 1.23(c) shows a later painting in which the perspective has been meticulously accounted for, leading to a beautiful palace view that requires no imagination for us to perceive it as ‘‘3D’’. By the 19th century, many artists had grown tired of such realism and started the controversial impressionist movement, an example of which is shown in Figure 1.23(d). Such paintings leave more to the imagination of the viewer, much like the earlier cave paintings.

Moving pictures

Once humans were content with staring at rectangles on the wall, the next step was to put them into motion. The phenomenon of stroboscopic apparent motion is the basis for what we call movies or motion pictures today. Flipping quickly through a sequence of pictures gives the illusion of motion, even at a rate as low as two pictures per second. Above ten pictures per second, the motion even appears to be continuous, rather than perceived as individual pictures. One of the earliest examples of this effect is the race horse movie created by Eadward Muybridge in 1878 at the request of Leland Stanford (yes, that one!); see Figure [1.24]

Motion picture technology quickly improved, and by 1896, a room full of spectators in a movie theater screamed in terror as a short film of a train pulling into a station convinced them that the train was about to crash into them (Figure 1.25(a)). There was no audio track. Such a reaction seems ridiculous for anyone who has been to a modern movie theater. As audience expectations increased, so had the degree of realism produced by special effects. In 1902, viewers were inspired by a Journey to the Moon (Figure 1.25(b)), but by 2013, an extremely high degree of realism seemed necessary to keep viewers believing (Figure 1.25(c) and 1.25(d)).

At the same time, motion picture audiences have been willing to accept lower degrees of realism. One motivation, as for paintings, is to leave more to the imagination. The popularity of animation (also called anime or cartoons) is a prime example (Figure 1.26). Even within the realm of animations, a similar trend has emerged as with motion pictures in general. Starting from simple line drawings in 1908 with Fantasmagorie (Figure 1.26(a)), greater detail appears in 1928 with the introduction of Mickey Mouse(Figure 1.26(b)). By 2003, animated films achieved a much higher degree of realism (Figure 1.26(c)); however, excessively simple animations have also enjoyed widespread popularity (Figure 1.26(d)).