It’s been almost 30 years since the computer scientist Jaron Lanier formed VPL Research, the first company to sell the high-tech goggles and gloves that once defined humanity’s concept of where technology might soon take our species. In the late 1980s, a person could pull on a $100,000 head-mounted display and electronic gauntlet and fool their brain into thinking they had stepped inside the simulated space rendered on the screen.
At the time, Lanier’s intoxicating inventions were featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, coverage that popularized the term “virtual reality” as well as a fresh vision of the future in which humans would flit between the real and virtual worlds. The well-worn narrative is that the VR pipe dream quickly faded, largely due to the exorbitant costs involved or the motion sickness that many users complained of when playing early consumer examples of the technology—such as Nintendo’s ambitious and experimental Virtual Boy games console controller.
Now, after many years on the periphery, VR is heading back to the mainstream. The proliferation of cheap high-resolution screens, motion-tracking sensors, and microchips in mobile computing devices has vastly reduced the technological cost of creating virtual reality hardware, making high-definition immersive head-mounted displays commercially viable.