Tracing VR’s Lineage: Virtual Reality in 1990

Virtual Legality Blog

Virtual Reality is often thought of as a groundbreaking and new technology, but it is actually the result of a sporadic course of development dating to at least the 1950s. I have written earlier about a patent from 1957 which discloses a Head Mounted Display (HMD) which closely resembles modern HMDs.

Moving forward in time from 1950 to 1990, the BBC aired a segment on virtual reality in the show Tomorrow’s World. Unfortunately, the segment does not attribute any particular entity to the showcased technology. A segment from ABC’s Primetime aired in 1991, showcasing the same headset and crediting Jonathan Waldern as the inventor. From my brief research, it appears that the corporation responsible for the technology was a U.K. company called Virtuality Group PLC.

A search for patents owned by either Waldern or Virtuality Group results in very few entries, none of which are particularly relevant to a VR HMD.

What is striking about the ‘90s-era headset is just how closely it resembles modern-day technology. The angle of the user’s head is tracked and affects the render angle of the virtual world. Also, the screens are LCD screens, just like they are today (albeit at a much lower resolution). There is even a rudimentary system for hand tracking, just like the HTC Vive or Oculus Touch.

These kinds of historical inquiries are legally important, as patents cannot be granted over subject matter that is in prior art. Examiners almost never search beyond patent databases, enabling inventions such as the one linked above to rise up only during costly litigation.

Patent practitioners working on applications for virtual reality need to be aware of “undocumented” prior art to ensure that any granted patents are enforceable even when subject to extensive litigation.