By Noah Nehlich
When the Irish painter Robert Barker first exhibited his enormous 137-m2 (1479-sf) panoramic painting of London in the late 18th century, he took Londoners entirely by surprise. His painting, which required a custom-built multi-level rotunda to be exhibited, showed viewers a completely new, stunningly immersive way to see and explore their city and landscape. It generated so much attention and enthusiasm that panoramic landscapes quickly became popular across Europe, with some calling his patented technique “the greatest improvement to the art of painting that has yet been discovered.”
What made Barker’s work so compelling was the same thing that draws homeowners to immersive designs today: he offered an incredible new way to see familiar ground. So popular were those 360-degree views that his panoramas also helped lead the way to today’s most immersive technology: 3D, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR).
More than a glimpse of nature
For Barker, just as much as for the Renaissance artists who first perfected the technique of drawing perspective in 2D, and for many pool and landscape designers today, the goal of sharing an immersive view of the landscape was clear. He wanted to perfect the most vividly realistic view of nature.
When Barker patented his panorama in 1787, he emphasized the importance of accuracy in creating a truly immersive experience: he wanted viewers to “feel as if really on the very spot.”
To achieve this feeling, he detailed in his patent the best way to immerse a viewer. “To perfect an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round,” Barker insisted not only the artist must “delineate correctly and connectedly every object which presents itself to his [her] view as he [she] turns round.” He also perceived the importance of making the details as realistic as possible: an artist “must observe the lights and shadows, how they fall, and perfect his [her] piece to the best of his [her] abilities.”
What Barker patented as La Nature à Coup d’Oeil (Nature at a glance) would help lead the way for the increasingly complex optical illusions that artists, inventors, and scientists collaborated to create.
As one look at the history of modern inventions suggests, “When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more significant ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.”
One such amazing transformation followed 200 years after Barker patented the panorama. A new term would emerge in 1987 that would push the limits of what artist and designers could create to share even more—virtual reality.
Paving the way for immersive experiences
Long before virtual reality experiences became a genuine possibility, however, artists and scientists alike had been attempting to create ever more immersive ways of sharing experiences and ways of seeing.
Before the term became popularized in the late ’80s, the technology for creating immersive virtual reality experiences was already in place.
For example, Ivan Sutherland, the same researcher whose early Sketchpad paved the way for 3D today, also developed a headset in the ’60s that allowed the wearer to explore different views. Called the “Sword of Damocles,” Sutherland’s headset was slightly too heavy to be portable; it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Slightly translucent, it paved the way for future wearable virtual and augmented reality headsets.
Morton Heilig’s “Sensorama,” developed in the ’50s and patented in the early ’60s, was intended as a way to “stimulate the senses of an individual to simulate an actual experience realistically.”