Creative Technology

Back to Blog

Before Oculus there was Damocleas

Virtual reality is a term which has been recently and energetically thrust back into the collective psyche. Its explosive usage has seemingly reached fever pitch, with words such as Rift, Morpheus and Cardboard acquiring new VR related connotation.

What most articles, technology blogs, and news feeds forget to cite when documenting this phenomenon is the grandfather and arguably first VR device, Ivan Sutherland’s ‘Sword of Damocles’. Built in 1968, the VR experiment owes its name to the greek anecdote of Damocles who traded places with his King ‘Dionysius’ but spent his time as king sat beneath a heavy sword suspended by a single horse hair.

Sutherland’s analogy may have been representative of the physical resemblance to the burden of the story’s protagonist; it was so enormous it had to be mounted to the celing with the user standing perilously below it.  Perhaps it was a prediction of the social dementia, and possible misadventure that ‘a life in VR’ could arouse; such as Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that the distinction between virtual reality and “real” will become murky, as Haptic, Aural, and Visual VR become too real.

Cataclysmic assumptions aside, the impact of VR’s popularity in present day is indebted to this incredible invention. Whilst hardware and software have improved exponentially in 47 years since its creation, the genesis of modern VR devices date back to the core technical concepts which Sutherland pioneered. For example to track the position of the user’s head Sutherland’s design used ultrasonic emitters “attached to the head-mounted optical system.” Sensors would record the trajectory of the sound and transform 3D wireframe objects based on the orientation of the user’s head. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive use similar method except instead of emitting ultrasound infrared light they have a series of infrared lights embedded into the device which are tracked by a infrared camera. It shared this same functionality with modern HMD’s (Head Mounted Displays) but was cumbersome and graphically primitive in comparison.

What distinguishes modern VR technology from earlier iterations is the vividness of the experience. As a result of improved graphical capabilities the quality of content has reached a standard where there is little to distract the user. Compared to ‘The sword of Damocles,’ consumer VR devices have reached a level of immersion so photorealistic and far superior to the the wireframe renders of Sutherland’s device. From a critical standpoint the speed of which VR has developed has naturally led to speculation on the negative effects. However as is the case with any progressive and disruptive technology, VR will transition from fad to an indispensable tool for everyday life.

Imagine a creative environment that merges both physical and digital tools, a canvas with no physical border and no distinction regarding genre.  Development of new methods, tools, and interfaces for creativity and multimedia production are coming. The introduction of the computer mouse altered how we create. How will we engage with a 360° digital canvas? What will illustrators and animators use to create 360° content? Ivan Sutherland and his grasp of Greek Mythology (and visual technology) was the first person to propose these questions, today we are beginning to see these questions of consciousness and creativity being answered.

Here at Dazzle Ship we’ve been preparing for VR – check out our explorations in 360 video

If you would like to talk to us about an idea for a VR project then please don’t hesitate to contact us

Jace Harrison Crowley

Jace Harrison Crowley

Design Assistant
Creative thinker with a passion for exploring new methods of interaction between people and technology.
Jace Harrison Crowley

Latest posts by Jace Harrison Crowley (see all)

Tags: , , ,