A History of the Future | The development of VR towards the 'Ultimate Display"

Virtual Reality in the 1980s and 1990s

A clip from tomorrows world here

The first example of Immersive theatre began with 'Battersea Square' in 1999

Ivan Sutherland's 'Sword of Damocles' 1968

"If you want to know what the future will be like invent it."
Alan Kay

Ivan Sutherland created the first head mounted display (he also invented the computer monitor, the first mouse and the first design software 'Sketchpad'.)

He wanted to make a digital reality which a person could be immersed within using his advanced display technology, what he described as a mathematical wonderland. He said of this synthetic world  (which he called the Ultimate Display) :

"The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal."

Jaron Lanier later invented the term 'Virtual Reality' in 1987 (see VRS). 
Blurring the boundaries between here and there

Notions of immersion and believable 'other realities came before Sutherland. In 1896, the Lumiere Brothers showed for the first time in a cinema setting their film "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat"

Story has it that embers of the audience were so convinced that the train was about to enter the cinema and kill them all that they ran from the building.

In 1938 A radio show of HG Wells' War of the Worlds was broadcast. Such was the authenticity of the performance that listeners believed the newsflash in the show to be real, causing panic across the USA. (jump to 3.00 minutes in to hear the newsflash and 10.28 to hear the 'landing')

In the 1970s a designer Morton Heilig invented the Sensorama, a machine which he hoped would immerse and engage the user in a range of scenarios. He built a mutli-sensory machine which provided visual, aural, olfactory and physical sensations.

Good VR resource here

Before ideas of immersive experiences there were what Grau (Virtual Art)calls  'virtual spatial images' which form part of the 'media of Illusion'. These can be said to begin with Cave paintings like those found in Lascaux. (there are now at least four versions of the Lascaux Caves at time of writing this). These are not technology based, but just huge murals, like the Villa dei Misteri (Pompeii, 60 Bc) below.

Another example is the Sala delle Prospettive, Baldessare Peruzzi (1516 Rome) Villa Farnesina, below.

The Nave of Sant'ignazio, Andrea Pozzo, Rome 1688-1694, below.

Below: Robert Barkers Panorama Rotunda, Leicester Square, 1793

The 90s equivalent to this was the C.A.V.E.