Ahead of its Time: a VR Patent from 1957

Virtual Legality Blog

When one hears the words “virtual reality,” images are conjured up of high-tech computers, modern technology, and millions of dollars of research and development. Clearly, up until recently, we simply did not have the technological know-how or powerful enough computers to create a VR headset. At least that was my assumption.

Enter the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). If an inventor does not file for a patent quickly, they lose the ability to do so once the public gets wind of the concept. Accordingly, the USPTO is often a source of ideas realized before their time, or product ideas that never hit the market.

So I guess it should come as no surprise that the concept of a virtual reality headset is not a modern day marvel, but was conceptualized as far back as the 1950’s. I present to you United States Patent No. 2,955,156, filed in 1957, titled “STEREOSCOPIC-TELEVISION APPARATUS FOR INDIVIDUAL USE”:

Look familiar?

You can access a full copy of the patent linked here. This cold-war-era invention bears a striking similarity to currently available consumer grade VR head mounted displays (HMD). The foam, strap, eye-lenses, speakers, and even general shape of the invention are almost identical to the Gear, Vive, or Oculus.

Note that a number of online publications have the Philco Headsight as the first Head Mounted Display in 1961. This patent beats out the Philco Headsight by almost 4 years, making it the first ever HMD. Also, the inventor, Morton Heilig, has been considered by some to be the grandfather of VR, but more so for his failed Sensorama than the above HMD.

There are, of course, a number of differences between the patent and current modern offerings. Heilig’s invention lacks any mechanism for tracking the head movements of the user and translating those movements to what the user is seeing on the screen(s). Rather than an OLED screen, the invention uses two miniature tubes or cathode rays (one for each eye). This would create quite a bit of heat, and there are appropriate ventilation holes to help disperse excess heat.

Notably, the invention includes something lacking in modern HMDs: a tube to blow air onto the face of the user.

In any event, within the patent system, once an idea is disclosed to the public, the idea can no longer be patented. It comes as no surprise then that the ‘156 patent has been cited 83 times as prior art against other patent applications. It very well may be this patent that has prevented Oculus from patenting the concept of an HMD, allowing the proliferation of companies that we see entering the space in modern day.