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An 'ethereal cube' from the 1960s is the reason the Oculus Rift exists

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My favorite moment at last month's Oculus Connect conference actually happened before the show started. It was during the Proto Awards — virtual reality's (significantly younger and smaller) version of the Oscars, with categories for things like the year's "best graphical user interface" and "best social experience" alongside the more traditional awards for music and art direction.

There have definitely been some standout VR experiences this year; spy mini-thriller I Expect You To Die ended up winning best overall experience, and the whole slate can be found here. But a surprise award also went out to Ivan Sutherland, creator of the "Sword of Damocles" headset in the 1960s. Sutherland is often cited as one of the inventors of what is now called virtual reality, along with cinematographer Mort Heilig. His nine-minute speech at the Proto Awards is a thoughtful, moving, and extremely modest recollection of the very first virtual object, as well as the inspiration behind it: a remote viewing system from Bell Helicopter.

[In] one of the experiments, the observer sat in a comfortable office chair inside the building. A camera was mounted on the roof, and two people were playing catch on the roof. And the observer could watch the ball going back and forth.

And then suddenly one of the players threw the ball at the camera, and the observer ducked. It was clear that the observer thought that he was at the camera and not comfortably safe inside the building. My little contribution to virtual reality was to realize that we didn't need a camera. We could substitute a computer.

There are a few recordings of the show floating around online, but sponsor AMD was willing to send me a higher-quality clip of Sutherland's speech, seen above. For more background, his 1965 essay "The Ultimate Display" is also a foundational virtual reality text, and there's more detail about the Sword of Damocles in my oral history of VR from 2014.