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A Brief History of Virtual Heritage

The Milestones

page updated February 18, 2021

 Virtual Heritage - the setting

Virtual Reality (VR) is the label adopted in recent decades for computer-generated visualizations in which users navigate through a three-dimensional digital (virtual) space, sometimes also with other forms of interactivity such as tactile feedback, sounds, or the ability to effect changes in the represented scene. The goal of VR is to create an illusion of realism and immersion more intense than any previous form of visualization in human history. By simulating so closely the experience of actual reality, the new digital world can truly be called a  virtual reality.

Creating images that are intended to reproduce visual experience has been part of human activity for millennia. From its earliest known images in cave paintings, humankind has exhibited an innate drive to represent the world around it, and even among these ancient images many convey remarkable understanding of movement and three-dimensional space. As technologies have changed, so have the means for stimulating the eye and the imagination, from mathematical perspective in the 15th century to motion pictures in the 20th century. People are fascinated by the illusion of "being there."

In the 21st century, we now have access to extremely powerful tools of computer imaging and display technology. It is approprate that a primary usage of this technology would quickly become the detailed representation of the art, artifacts, and architecture of inaccessible times and places. This usage has evolved into the new discipline called Virtual Heritage.

The following is a condensed history of milestones since the early 20th century that have made possible current projects in Virtual Heritage (and includes VR "relatives" such as augmented reality, mixed reality, and holography) for education, fieldwork documentation, museum display, research, publication, broadcast, and entertainment.

 Virtual Heritage - how we got here

1929 - Link Aeronautic Corporation developed interactive training devices that simulated fighter plane cockpits. A full-sized mock-up was mounted on a motion platform that could pitch and yaw in response to a pilot's actions.

1935 - American science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum described a comprehensive fictional model for virtual reality in his short story Pygmalion's Spectacles. The main character of the novel, Dan Burke, meets an elfin professor, Albert Ludwig, who has invented a pair of goggles which enabled "a movie that gives one sight and sound...taste, smell, and touch.... You are in the story, you speak to the shadows [characters] and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."

1957 - Cinematographer Morton Heilig (1926-1997) created a simulator known as Sensorama, which could generate city smells, wind sensation, and vibration as a participant sat on a real motorcycle and went on a simulated ride through New York City. This device had many of the features of a VR system except that the route was fixed and the experience was thus not fully interactive; however, such a complete sensory involvement has rarely been duplicated since.

1960 - Morton Heilig patented the first Head-Mounted Display (HMD; called by him the Telesphere Mask), which allowed a user to look around a computer-generated room by turning one's head.

c.1967 - Ivan Sutherland (1938 - ; often called the father of computer graphics and the pioneer of VR), working at Harvard University with Bob Sproull, first prototyped a stereographic HMDs, using left-eye/right-eye versions of the same image, to increase spatial illusion (it was nicknamed the Sword of Damocles), which he already had discussed in 1965.

1968 - Ivan Sutherland and David Evans founded Evans & Sutherland, a company to produce computer-generated scenes for use by the military in flight simulators, to replace video-camera-based scenes.

1972 - General Electric built for the Navy the first flight simulator that used computers, providing real-time response. Three screens gave pilots a 180o simulated view.

1972 - UNESCO formed the World Heritage Committee to define and conserve the world's cultural and natural heritage through cooperation among nations.

1973 - SIGGRAPH, the Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Technologies, within the Association for Computing Machinery, held its first conference. It remains the most widely recognized organization of computer graphics specialists.

1973 - The organization Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) held its first conference (in Birmingham GB).

1974/75 - Myron Krueger (1942 - ), the first artist to use interactivity as a medium, coined the term "artificial reality" and began developing a computer-controlled responsive environment eventually called Videoplace. It captured the user's body by video camera in real time and allowed the user to "finger-paint" by moving a pointing finger through the air. The video screen would then record and display the movement as a trail of color and allow viewers in a different and remote location to see the same images simultaneously. Holding up all five fingers erased the image. This was true interaction in which the computer was almost secondary, while the user became the focus.

1975 - French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) developed fractal geometry, a method for understanding patterns that differs from classical geometry. The application of fractals has enabled computer modelling programs to realistically simulate the complexity of natural features such as foliage and topography.

1977 - Richard Sayre, Thomas DeFanti, and Daniel Sandin (at the University of Illinois, Chicago) developed a lightweight, inexpensive data glove, dubbed the Sayre Glove, that allowed a user to virtually reach into cyberspace and manipulate a virtual object there.

1978 - Eric Howlett (1926-2011) developed the Large Expanse Extra Perspective (LEEP) optical system (patented in 1983), which provided the basis for most of the VR headsets in the years to come and the company he founded.

1978 - Researchers at MIT developed the Aspen Movie Map, an interactive, computer-controlled video simulation of a drive though Aspen, Colorado, in which users could drive down streets and enter and explore buildings.

1979 - The US military produced helmet-mounted displays that projected scenes directly into a pilot's eyes, eliminating slower and more cumbersome projection systems. This move was in response to the need for split-second reaction critical in increasingly complex fighter aircraft and especially in supersonic flight.

1982 - Autodesk, Inc., released the first version of AutoCAD® software, a computer-aided design and 3D modeling package intended for use on personal computers.

1984 - Michael McGreevy, Jim Humphries, and colleagues at NASA Ames Research Center developed goggles that allowed the wearer to look around a graphic landscape portrayed on a computer screen and that were much lighter, simpler, and less expensive than HMDs previously produced.

1984 - Artist and performer Vincent John Vincent and computer programmer Francis MacDougall developed the Mandala Virtual Reality System allowing individuals to make music, play, create visual art, and communicate in a computer-based environment.

1984 - Computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier (1960 - )founded VPL Research Inc., the first company to actively develop and market the first commercial virtual reality products. Lanier either invented or generally popularized the term "virtual reality." Thomas Zimmerman, co-founder of VPL, worked with Lanier to develop the DataGlove for grasping computer-generated objects in virtual worlds.

1985 - At the NASA Ames Center, the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW system) was developed, combining several of the innovations of the previous few years into which included a Polhemus tracking device, LEEP-based HMD, 3D audio, gesture recognition with VPL DataGlove, BOOM-mouinted CRT, and remote camera by FakeSpace. The result was a virtual environment in which users could issue voice commands, hear synthesized speech and 3D sounds, and virtually grab and manipulate 3D objects with their hands. Communication and feedback with a computer-simulated environment were direct; no contact with a computer was needed.

1985 - The University of North Carolina "Walkthrough Project" built a 3D computer model, instead of the traditional balsawood model, of a design for a new computer science building. The designers hooked up a treadmill and movable handlebars of a bicycle to the computers which allowed users to simulate walking down the halls and turning into rooms.

1986 - The CN Tower in Toronto opened the first commercial motion simulator ride, Tour of the Universe.

1987 - The television series Star Trek: Next Generation depicted the ultimate VR device, the "Holodeck:" a computer-generated environment that contained holographic figures and permitted the characters to participate actively in a completely realistic, simulated environment. The simulation was so complete that users were not able to distinguish between real objects or characters and simulated ones.

1988 - Adobe® picks up a newly devised image-editing software called Photoshop®, which it released to the public in 1990 and which quickly became the standard tool for creating texture maps in virtual worlds.

1989 - Pixar® released software called Renderman®, which provided significantly greater capabilities for realism in describing and rendering 3D computer graphics scenes.

1989 - Jaron Lanier of VPL Research coined the term "virtual reality" to describe computer-generated simulated environments that  feel real, which he was creating, to distinguish them from other computer simulations (some Websites put the coinage date at 1987; Lanier's own Website simply says the late 1980s).

1991 - The Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington first developed the Virtual Retinal Display, an HMD based on the concept of scanning an image directly on the retina of the viewer's eye.

1992 - The movie Lawnmower Man introduced the concept of VR and head-mounted displays to the mainstream public.

1992 - CAVE® (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) technology was first developed at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois, Chicago (and shown to the public at SIGGRAPH 1992), the first fully immersive virtual environment display space: each of three or more walls has a separate data projector behind it providing stereo images, so that the user sees nothing but the virtual environment on all sides unencumbered by headsets.

1992 - The Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory (VREL), at East Carolina University, was founded by Veronica Pantelidis and Larry Auge, to educate teachers on how to integrate VR into their courses. Until its closing in 2009, the VREL directors had compilied a huge bibliography on the subject now numbering over 1000 entries, testifying to the successes of using VR in the classroom.

1993 - The video games Doom and Myst were released and would become two of the most popular computer games in history. Doom provided a major advance in user navigation through virtual spaces, and Myst offered a dramatic advance in the depiction of lush, richly detailed settings.

1993-94 - Three organizations pioneered the use of virtual reality technology for visualizing cultural heritage: Carnegie-Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry (headed by Carl E. Loeffler) designed the Temple of Horus interactive environment; the Learning Sites team (headed by Bill Riseman and Donald H. Sanders) re-created the ancient Egyptian fortress of Buhen; and English Heritage (headed by Robert Stone), along with Intel Corporation, re-created Stonehenge. Each took a different approach and used different software and display hardware. Each project sought to demonstrate the capabilities of the new VR technology for education and communication; all were limited, however, to the very expensive systems and relatively slow (by today's standards) graphics cards available then. Of the three organizations, only Learning Sites continues to create interactive heritage-based content for education, research, publication, museum display, broadcast, and tourism. The field is now known as Virtual Heritage.

1994 - Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) was developed (later known as Virtual Reality Modeling Language): a programming language that allowed virtual worlds to be accessed via the Internet and displayed using ordinary desktop computers.

1995 - The first international conference dedicated to the use of virtual reality for cultural heritage was held in Bath, GB. Virtual Heritage '95 brought together the innovators of the day, including Project Buhen, created by the Learning Sites team, to demonstrate the integration of virtual worlds, intelligent avatars, and linked text and image databases.

1995 - The International Society for Virtual Systems and Multimedia (VSMM) held its first conference, focusing on technical aspects of virtual reality.

1995 - The first meeting of the Archäologie und Computer Workshop (later to become the Cultural Heritage and New Technologies) annual conference in Vienna.

1996 - The technology of Image Based Modeling and Rendering, which allows 3D computer models to be created from a series of still pholotographs, was presented at SIGGRAPH.The process eventually called photomodeling has by the 2010's become a quick, efficient, and precise way to create detailed 3D models.

late 1990s - The creation of interactive 3D models of ancient sites, buildings, and objects became the new trend-setting pursuit, as computer prices fell, more modeling software became available, and graphics cards (fueled by the video game market) got faster and provided higher resolutions. Professional archaeology, computer, museum, and education conferences (e.g., annual meetings of the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archeaology organization and the Museum Computer Network) began to include papers and sessions focusing on the new field of Virtual Archaeology (using virtual reality for the analysis, display, and dissemination of excavated data).

1997 - Virtual Archaeology: re-creating ancient worlds (by Maurizio Forte and Alberto Siliotti) is published, the first major publication to discuss and illustrate the benefits of computer graphics for visualizing the past.

1998 - Donald H. Sanders, President of Learning Sites, Inc., formed the Virtual Worlds in Archaeology Initiative to facilitate the access, preservation, and active dissemination of the numerous virtual ancient worlds already completed, being built, or in preparation around the world.

1999 - The Foundation of the Hellenic World in Athens, Greece, opened its Virtual Reality Center (headed by Maria Roussou), using immersive displays as a means to advance the research, understanding, and teaching of Hellenic culture. The Center continues to be a popular destination for school groups, tourists, and the general public.

2000 - The Virtual Heritage Network (VHN) was launched at the VSMM annual conference through the efforts of Takeo Ojika, with assistance from Robert Stone, Alonzo Addison, and Scott Refsland. VHN promotes the utilization of VR technology for the preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage worldwide. The Website and network has since been abandoned.

2000 - The groundbreaking collection of scholarly papers Virtual Reality in Archaeology (edited by Juan A. Barcelo, Maurizio Forte, and Donald H. Sanders) was published, formally documenting the links between VR and the profession of archaeology.

2001 - The Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc., was founded, expanding on the pioneering efforts of the Learning Sites team. By this time, hundreds of projects around the world had begun to use VR to study and teach about the past, and related professional societies and conferences, as well as hundreds of Websites were emerging.

2001 - Several European consortia (e.g., ArcheoGuide, LifePlus, Vilars Virtual) were formed (uniting academic and corporate partners with generous EU funding) for the express purpose of developing hand-held augmented reality devices for use by visitors while exploring an archaeological site. The devices used a wireless network to send VR models directly screens held by visitors at the sites, who could see both the virtual re-creations and the real remains at the same time. The first commercial versions of such devices debuted at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece.

2002 - The publication Virtual Archaeology, edited by Franco Niccolucci, formalized the title term and demonstratesd the new partnership between interactive visualization technologies and the study of the past.

2003 - With the disciplines of Virtual Archaeology and Virtual Heritage rapidly growing, the Arts and Humanities Data Service in England recognized the need to publish a guide to good practice (Creating and Using Virtual Reality: a guide for the arts and humanities; edited by Kate Fernie and Julian Richards) regarding the history, techniques, and documentation, and archiving issues of the fields. In recognition of its leadership status in the field, Learning Sites was asked to submit several case studies for the book.

Since 2003, the discipline of Virtual Heritage has trended toward the mainstream in archaeological fieldwork (with the use of aerial drone-based photomodeling, single-click 360 degree panoramic models, and born-digital documentation packages that include interactive worlds), museum display (with touch-screen access to interactive models, mixed reality theater projections, and the introduction of holographic imagery), and teaching (with widespread use of interactive models on hand-held devices, HMD-based computer labs, and global collaborative classrooms). Faster computers and wireless networks, phone-based data collection and world building, higher-resolution VR headsets of all types, native Web browser-based OpenGL graphics, and ubiquitous access to information mean that Virtual heritage will remain the normative means of data collection, research, analysis, publication, teaching, broadcast, display, and social media interaction for years to come. Additional conferences dedicated to Virtual Heritage (e.g., Arqueologica, Digital Heritage Congress, Eurographics, VAST: International Symposium on Virtual Reality, Archaeology, and Cultural Heritage) have demonstrated the continuing global interest in the discipline. Further, since 2015 the Spanish Society of Virtual Archaeology (SEAV) has offered a masters degree specifically in Virtual Heritage.

 Virtual Heritage - select bibliography

For additional resources, see the Learning Sites Bibliography page.

Bertol, Daniela
1997     Designing Digital Space: an architect's guide to virtual reality. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Boas, Y. A. G. V.
2013     "Overview of Virtual Reality Technologies." Interactive Multimedia Conference. Southampton.

Crogan, Patrick
2011     Gameplay Mode: war, simulation, and technoculture. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Cruz-Neira, Carolina et al.
1992     "The CAVE: audio visual experience automatic virtual environment." Communications of the ACM 35.6:64-73.

Dipietro, Laura, Angelo M. Sabatini, & Paolo Dario
2008     "A Survey of Glove-based Systems and Their Applications." IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, Part C (Applications and Reviews) 38.4:461-482.

Fabio, Remondino & Sabry El-Hakim
2006     "Image-based 3D Modelling: a review," The Photogrammetric Record 21.115:269-91.

Gigante, Michael A.
1993     "Virtual reality: definitions, history and applications," pp.3-14 in R. A. Earnshaw, M. A. Gigante, & H. Jones, eds., Virtual Reality Systems. London: Academic Press.

Krueger, M. W.
1993     "An Easy Entry Artificial Reality," pp.147-61 in Alan Wexelblat, ed., Virtual Reality: applications and explorations, Boston: Academic Press Professional.

Mandelbrot, Benoit B.
1977     Fractals: form, chance, and dimension. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

McLellan, Hilary
1996     "Virtual Realities." pp.457-487 in David H. Jonassen, Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. New York: Macmillan Library Reference.

Novák-Marcin, Jozef
2007     "Theory and Practice of Virtual Manufacturing," Manufacturing Engineering. Feb. pp.85-91.

Steuer, Jonathan
1992     "Defining Virtual Reality: dimensions determining telepresence," Journal of Communication 42.4.73-93.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne
1991     "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" Cyberspace: first steps pp.81-118.

Stone, Robert J.
1996     "Position and Orientation Sensing in Virtual Environments," Sensor Review 16.1:40-46.

Sutherland, Ivan
1965     "The Ultimate Display," pp.506-8 in Information processing 1965: proceedings of IFIP Congress 65, London: Macmillan and Co.

Vincent, V. J.
1993     "The Mandala Virtual Reality System: the vivid group," pp.167-70 in Sandra K. Helsel, ed., Proceedings of the Third Annual Virtual Reality Conference and Exhibition on VR Becomes a Business. Westport, CT: Meckler Corp.