All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s

Virtual reality has seen enormous progress in the past few years. Given its recent surges in development, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the ideas underpinning what we now call VR were laid way back in the 60s. Not all of the imagined possibilities have come to pass, but we’ve learned plenty about what is (and isn’t) important for a compelling VR experience, and gained insights as to what might happen next.

If virtual reality’s best ideas came from the 60s, what were they, and how did they turn out?

Interaction and Simulation

First, I want to briefly cover two important precursors to what we think of as VR: interaction and simulation. Prior to the 1960s, state of the art examples for both were the Link Trainer and Sensorama.

The Link Trainer was an early kind of flight simulator, and its goal was to deliver realistic instrumentation and force feedback on aircraft flight controls. This allowed a student to safely gain an understanding of different flying conditions, despite not actually experiencing them. The Link Trainer did not simulate any other part of the flying experience, but its success showed how feedback and interactivity — even if artificial and limited in nature — could allow a person to gain a “feel” for forces that were not actually present.

Sensorama was a specialized pod that played short films in stereoscopic 3D while synchronized to fans, odor emitters, a motorized chair, and stereo sound. It was a serious effort at engaging a user’s senses in a way intended to simulate an environment. But being a pre-recorded experience, it was passive in nature, with no interactive elements.

Combining interaction with simulation effectively had to wait until the 60s, when the digital revolution and computers provided the right tools.

The Ultimate Display

In 1965 Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, authored an essay entitled The Ultimate Display (PDF) in which he laid out ideas far beyond what was possible with the technology of the time. One might expect The Ultimate Display to be a long document. It is not. It is barely two pages, and most of the first page is musings on burgeoning interactive computer input methods of the 60s.

The second part is where it gets interesting, as Sutherland shares the future he sees for computer-controlled output devices and describes an ideal “kinesthetic display” that served as many senses as possible. Sutherland saw the potential for computers to simulate ideas and output not just visual information, but to produce meaningful sound and touch output as well, all while accepting and incorporating a user’s input in a self-modifying feedback loop. This was forward-thinking stuff; recall that when this document was written, computers weren’t even generating meaningful sounds of any real complexity, let alone visual displays capable of arbitrary content. Continue reading “All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s”

Restoring An Unusual Piece Of Computing History

Trawling classified ads or sites like Craigslist for interesting hardware is a pastime enjoyed by many a hacker. At a minimum, you can find good deals on used tools and equipment. But if you’re very lucky, you might just stumble upon something really special.

Which is exactly how [John] came into possession of the TRANSBINIAC. Included in a collection of gear that may have once belonged to a silent key, the device is a custom-built solid-state computer that appears to have been assembled in the early 1960s. Featuring a large see-through window not unlike what you might find on a modern gaming computer and a kickstand that tilts it back at a roughly 45° angle, it was obviously built to be shown off. Perhaps it was a teaching aid or even a science fair entry.

After some digging, it looks like the design of the TRANSBINIAC was based on plans published in the January 1960 issue of Electronics Illustrated. Though there are some significant differences. This computer uses eight bistable flip-flip modules instead of the original six, deletes the multiplication circuit, and employs somewhat simplified wiring. Whoever built this machine clearly knew what they were doing, which for the time, is really saying something. This truly unique machine may well have been one of the first privately owned digital computers in the world.

Which is why we’re glad to see [John] trying to restore the device to its former glory. Naturally it’s a little tricky since the computer came with no documentation and its design doesn’t exactly match anything out there. But with the help of other Hackaday.io users, he’s hoping to get everything figured out. It sounds like the first step is to try and diagnose the 2N554 germanium transistor flip-flop modules, as they appear to be behaving erratically. If you have experience with this sort of hardware, feel free to chime in.

We’re supremely proud of the fact that so many of these early computer examples (and the people that are fascinated by them) have recently found their way to Hackaday.io. They’re literally the building blocks on which so much of our modern technology is based on, and the knowledge of how they were designed and operated deserves to live on for future generations to learn from. If it wasn’t for 1960s machines like the TRANSBINIAC or the so-called “Paperclip Computer”, Hackaday might not even exist. It seems like the least we can do is return the favor and make sure they aren’t forgotten.

[Thanks to Yann for the tip.]

BINA-VIEW: A Fascinating Mechanical Interference Display

[Fran Blanche] tears down this fascinating display in a video teardown, embedded below.

These displays can support up to 64 characters of the buyer’s choosing which is controlled by 6 bits, surprisingly only requiring 128 mW per bit to control; pretty power-light for its day and age. Aside from alphanumeric combinations the display also supported “color plates” which we found quite fascinating. The fully decked model would only cost you $1,206 US dollars per unit in today’s money or five rolls of toilet paper at latest street price. And that’s just one digit.

If you dig through the documents linked here, and watch her video you can get an idea of how this display works. There are six solenoids attached to rods at the rear of the device. A lamp shines through a lens onto the back of a plate assembly. Each plate is a strategically perforated grid. When the solenoids activate the selected plates tilt interfering with a stationary grid. This causes the light to be blocked in some regions only.

It seems clear why this never took off. Aligning these seems like a production nightmare compared to things like flip displays and Nixie tubes. Still, the characters have quite a lot of charm to them. We wouldn’t mind seeing a 3D printable/laser cut version of this display type. Get working!

Continue reading “BINA-VIEW: A Fascinating Mechanical Interference Display”

Simple “Computer” From The ’60s Now 3D Printed

Now is an amazing time to be involved in the hobby electronics scene. There are robots to build, cheap microcontrollers which are easy to program, and computers themselves are able to be found for very low prices. That wasn’t the case in the 1960s though, where anyone interested in “electronics” might have had a few books about ham radios or some basic circuits. If you were lucky though, you may have found a book from 1968 that outlined the construction of a digital computer made out of paperclips that [Mike Gardi] is hoping to replicate.

One of the first components that the book outlines is building an encoder, which can convert a decimal number to binary. In the original book the switches were made from paper clips and common household parts, but [Mike] is using a more reliable switch and some 3D prints to build his. The key of the build is the encoder wheel and pegs, which act as the “converter” between decimal and binary and actually performs the switching.

It’s a fairly straightforward build, but by working through the rest of the book the next steps are to build two binary encoders and hook all of them up to an ALU which will give him most of a working computer from long lost 1960s lore. He’s been featured recently for building other computers from this era as well.

Thanks to [DancesWithRobots] for the tip!