Moving beyond stereoscopes and toward those magical glasses took a little more time, however. In the late 1960s, a University of Utah computer science professor named Ivan Sutherland—who had invented Sketchpad, the predecessor of the first graphic computer interface, as an MIT student—created a contraption called the Sword of Damocles.
The name was fitting: The Sword of Damocles was so large it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Nonetheless, it was the first “head-mounted display”; users who had its twin screens attached to their head could look around the room and see a virtual 3D cube hovering in midair. (Because you could also see your real-world surroundings, this was more like AR than VR, but it remains the inspiration for both technologies.)
Sutherland and his colleague David Evans eventually joined the private sector, adapting their work to flight simulator products. The Air Force and NASA were both actively researching head-mounted displays as well, leading to massive helmets that could envelop pilots and astronauts in the illusion of 360-degree space. Inside the helmets, pilots could see a digital simulation of the world outside their plane, with their instruments superimposed in 3D over the display; when they moved their heads the display would shift, reflecting whatever part of the world they were “looking” at.
None of this technology had a true name, though—at least not until the 1980s, when a twenty-something college dropout named Jaron Lanier dubbed it “virtual reality.” (The phrase was first used by French playwright Antonio Artaud in a 1933 essay.) The company Lanier cofounded, VPL Research, created the first official products that could deliver VR: the EyePhone (yup), the DataGlove, and the DataSuit. They delivered a compelling, if graphically primitive, experience, but they were slow, uncomfortable, and—at more than $350,000 for a full setup for two people, including the computer to run it all—prohibitively expensive.
Yet, led by VPL’s promise and fueled by sci-fi writers, VR captured the popular imagination in the first half of the 1990s. If you didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, you may have seen the movie Lawnmower Man that same year—a divine piece of schlock that featured VPL’s gear (and was so far removed from the Stephen King short story it purported to adapt that King sued to have his name removed from the poster). It wasn’t just colonizing genre movies or speculative fiction: VR figured prominently in syndicated live-action kiddie fare like VR Troopers, and even popped up in episodes of Murder She Wrote and Mad About You.