Immersive photography


A plausible history

The concept of virtual reality can be widely discussed for the philosophical implications it contains.
"By virtual reality we mean a digital environment in which real experience conditions are simulated, synaesthetically experimentable through specific interfaces between the body and the technological apparatus (hardware and software)." (1)
The term itself appears only in 1985 by the polyhedric artist Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research.
The idea of virtual reality that we consider here assumes the reproduction value of a scene that has a relationship with reality, in an illusory form and with a characteristic of immersion in the environment.(2)
The purely visual aspect is therefore considered. The "ideal" concept of virtual reality should include all our senses, in addition to vision, hearing, touch, smell, the sense of balance, the kinesthetic one, etc.

The origins

Following this concept, but without considering examples of immersion in the scene as for the frescoes of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, we can start from afar, from all that series of "small reconstructed worlds" that since 1600 take the name of perspective boxes, mondi niovi, zogroscopes, peep box.
The Perspective Boxes were successful among Dutch artists of the 1600s: they represented scenes (also painted with cuvilinear perspectives, see Carel Fabritius) playing with distorted mirrors and planes, on the illusion and the creation of small virtual spaces.
Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten - Perspective box, 1655-60  

From the second half of the 18th century, the Mondi Niovi (new worlds) have been popular in Venice, of which the playwright Carlo Goldoni speaks in the Rusteghi.(3) The movie director Ettore Scola too, in the first scenes of the 1982 movie La Nuit de Varennes reconstructs the show of the Mondi Niovi.
The vision of the interior was favored by a lens that magnified the scene.
mondi niovi
mondi niovi
Mondo Niovo Mondo Niovo, inside
mondo niovo aperto
Opening of a Mondo Niovo Gaetano Zompini, "Mondo Niovo" (1785)
tuti li mundi frankental ceramica
Francisco Goya, Tuti li Mundi 1803/1820 - Hispanic Society of America, NY Frankenthal porcelain,by Johann Friedrich Lück, il mondo nuovo, 1758-63

The zogroscope was used to view "optical views" (vue d'optique), which were reflected by the mirror and enlarged by the lens.
zograscope japan zograscope
Zogroscope and "vue d'optique" Suzuki Harunobu print, 18th century

The Peep Box, or Peep show identical to the Mondi Niovi was a popular curiosity until the 19th century, rather common and widespread throughout the world, could be found at village fairs. Only in the twentieth century it assume the characteristic of erotic spectacle ...
Lithograph by F. Schlotterbec, Der Jahrmarkt - Esslingen 1843. Note the Panorama rotunda (in this case just a round tent) behind the peep box (Guckkasten in German).
peepshow interno peep show
Peep box, inside Peep box in China, early 19th century
guckkastner iran peep show
Theodor Hosemann, Illustration for the booklet Berlin wie es ist und - trinkt by Adolph_Glasbrenner - 1832 A 19th century Iranian peep box kept in the Golestan Palace, Tehran
rarekiek rarekiek
Dutch portable peep box (rarekiek) Dutch portable peep box (rarekiek)
mathM peep
A peep box in Bejing in 1878 IBM Exhibition, Mathematica: A World of Numbers ... and Beyond at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Los Angeles - 1961
peepshow 1954
Erotic peep show in 1954 Contemporary (before internet) peep-show, inside

As a form of virtual reality in an immersive sense, we can include the Diorama, a more complex form of the Panorama, where the audience could be rotating, and there was a real show sometimes with lights and sounds. It took on different names, such as Cosmorama, Ciclorama (also synonymous with Panorama), Myriorama (scrolling panorama), very similar to each other and all based on the original idea of Barker's Panorama.
Luis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, inventor of the photographic process that takes his name, the daguerreotype, was among the first to open a Diorama in Paris in 1822. The shows in the Diorama were a success and the richness too of Daguerre up to around 1839, when his Diorama went up in flames.
Today, not surprisingly, the term Diorama refers to a model, a small-scale setting that recreates various kinds of scenes.
daguerre diorama
Daguerre Diorama


One more invention, which must be included in the evolution of virtual reality, is stereoscopy.
Stereoscopy, as the word says, allows the three-dimensional perception of the objects or environments photographed.
The first studies and the realization of the first stereoscope (which was based on mirrors and visualized drawings) are due to Sir Charles Wheatstone, who presented his invention to the Royal Society of London in 1838.
Charles Wheatstone stereoscope Portrait of a child with stereo camera, late 1800s
The first stereoscopic viewers
With Sir David Brewster the stereoscope mounts lenses and eyepieces and is applied to photographs, and the birth of the first stereo camera is attributed to John Benjamin Dancer in 1852.
Dalimeyer stereo-camera, c.1868 Eastman Kodak Stereo-Hawkeye Model 4, 1905-1913
A creative stereogram: The Ghost in the Stereoscope, ca 1865 - London Stereoscopic Company
The Underwood & Underwood company produced millions of stereograms between 1881 and 1940.
The Kaiserpanorama A stereo-photographer lady, late '800
The Kaiserpanorama from the late 1800s to the first decade of the 1900s was a collective vision device for stereograms, which were not panoramic, but represented stereo views of various locations around the world. A stereo evolution of peep box.
The fashion of stereophotography has developed to the present day with ups and downs: in the 1950s / 1960s, for example, the View Master was extremely popular.
Portable stereo viewer (Museo della Scienza di Milano), 1870. Tru-Vu, 1957. View Master, 1960.
In 1993 the Spaceshot 3-D was built, a variant of the Seitz Roundshot: a stereo camera that covered over 360°.
At the NSA's annual meeting in Milwaukee in 1993, David Burden presented the camera accompanied by a stereo viewer (designed by electronic engineer Pat Falvey) that reacted with gyroscopes to the rotating movement of the head. A true forerunner of today's HMD 360s.
Seitz Spaceshot 3-D and viewer (1993 / 1994)

Science fiction

It is due to literature, in imagining other or future worlds, the premonition of virtual reality:
in circa 1934 Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote "Pygmalion's Spectacles" a science fiction story where the protagonist wearing special glasses, travels to an alien world (Mars) and lives a "virtual" adventure.
In 1964 Daniel F. Galouye in the book "Simulacron 3", tells of a "simulated reality" fruit of a huge computer.
In 1984, William Gibson, science fiction writer, hypothesized Cyberspace, practically the virtual world, in the book "Neuromancer".
pigmalion spectacles

The electronic and digital evolution

We can consider in the history of virtual reality the flight simulators, which, for the obvious need to make aspiring pilots learn flight techniques in the most likely way, have been among the most advanced precursors: simulation does not only take place for the visual field, but also for all the effects of gravity that a real flight can have.
flight simulator
Danish simulator, 1910 C-3 Link Trainer, U.S. Army Air Force simulator,1940
787 simulator
Flight simulator for the Boing 787, inside and outside, 2015.

The interaction with the "electronic calculator" has a development in the forms that are known to us today around 1960, with the invention of the mouse by Doug Engelbart, and with the "Computer Graphic" by Ivan Sutherland.
Mouse and graphics on PC, Doug Engelbart - 1958 Sketchpad, Ivan Sutherland (MIT) - 1962
Ivan Sutherland also develops research on Head Mounted Displays as a computer output, with a device called The Sword of Damocles due to its threatening heaviness above the head. The internal vision was primitive, a room model generated in wireframe computer graphics.
spada di damocle
Ivan Sutherland, A head-mounted three dimensional display, 1968
In 1962 Morton Heilig patented a machine capable of "bringing to another world" an evolution of the Niovi worlds, another step towards virtual reality: the Sensorama, not yet digital but already electronic.
The Sensorama gave the illusion of reality by using stereo films, with sound, seat vibration and smells.
Morton Heilig is also the precursor of the head mount displays (HMD), the viewers that today are considered the basic tools for virtual reality, with a device called Telesphere.
Morton Heilig, Sensorama - 1962
telesphere mask
Morton Heilig, Telesphere mask - 1960

Virtual reality

One of the projects that is considered not only as an anticipator in the history of virtual reality but also as the first interactive map (virtual tour) thirty years before Google Street View, was the Aspen Movie Map, created between 1978 and 1979 , presented in 1981 by MIT's The Architecture Machine group and led by Andrew Lippman.

VPL Research (Virtual Programming Languages) founded by Jaron Lanier in 1984 and with the participation of Mitch Altman and Thomas Zimmerman was the first company to develop and sell virtual reality products.
As mentioned above, the term "virtual reality" is attributed to Jaron Lanier himself.
The products were the data glove, i.e. interactive glove, the eyephone, HMD viewer and the data suite, an interactive suit.
Data glove and eyephone, left worn by Jaron Lanier (ph.Kevin Kelly)
vr games
The company of the British researcher Jonathan D Waldern, Virtuality Group Plc, since the early 90s has made available to the arcades a series of machines equipped with 3D HMD viewers with which they can also play in groups. The vision is still based on simple computer graphics. The first models are managed by a Commodore Amiga 3000 computer.

The CAVE project, Cave Automatic Virtual Environtment (cave, reference to the "myth of the cave" narrated by the Athenian philosopher Plato) presented at SIGGRAPH in 1992, by the Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois, can be defined as the first realization of a virtual reality environment.
The illusion of immersion is obtained by projecting stereo images onto the walls and floor of a cube with the size of a room.
Several people, wearing stereo glasses, can freely enter and walk inside the CAVE. A head tracking system continuously adjusts the stereo projection from the current position of the main viewer.
CAVE project


1) Andrea Balzola, Le arti multimediali digitali - Garzanti 2004, pag. 534
2) see: Oliver Grau, Virtual art: From illusion to immersion - MIT Press, 2003
3) « Lunardo: "Mio pare, co giera zovene, el me diseva: Vustu véder el Mondo niovo? o vusto, che te daga do soldi? Mi me taccava ai do soldi." » English:« Lunardo: "When I was young, my father used to say to me: would you like to see the Mondo niovo? Or would you like me to give you two pennies? I used to stick to the two pennies.»
Carlo Goldoni, I rusteghi, act II, scene 5


- Perspective box at National Gallery, London
- Peepshow, zograscope,... by Thomas Weynants
- Zogroscopio, Museo di Storia della Fisica - Padova
- Morton Heilig and Sensorama patent
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Virtual Reality
- A Vintage Virtual Reality Interview by Jaron Lanier
- Virtual Reality History - NCSA - University of Illinois
- Doug Engelbart Istitute
- Ivan Sutherland, A head-mounted three dimensional display - Proceedings of AFIPS 68
- VRWiky - Wikispaces
- Michael W. McGreevy, The virtual environment display system - NASA
- Francisco Martí Ferrer, Inmersión en la imagen visual - Universidad Politécnica de Valéncia, 2009
- London Stereoscopic Company
- Interview with Mitch Altman, VPL

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© Toni Garbasso