What The Past Can Teach Us About Virtual Reality

Looking at the evolution of successful mediums from the past, we can see a very specific cycle emerge, and how long it took to develop.

A Holmes stereoscope, the most popular form of 19th century stereoscope. The core technology is similar to today’s VR cardboards.

Last week, several experiments in immersive storytelling were launched, and Virtual Reality seems to be the newest medium to hit the media scene. We’ve all heard of VR by now, but it’s still so new that we don’t yet know how to take advantage of all its potential. Understanding the past is crucial to comprehend the future, and most media platforms that eventually become successful go through two very specific phases. Is VR going through that same path?

Phase one

The first phase is uncertainty. When new technology begins to enter mainstream society, there’s hesitancy by the public to adopt it. We have more questions than answers, and usually one of those questions is:“Why would anyone ever want to use this or do that? That’s silly.” I’m sure some of you have even heard something similar with regard to virtual reality. “Why would anyone want to wear that headset?”

These questions are legitimate. VR experiences are limited to one person at a time, while others watch someone looking all around a different environment, maybe see them extend their hands and try to touch some virtual object in front of them. I heard a question at a conference a couple weeks ago about people who wear glasses — how can we better the experience for them?

Phase Two

So I would argue that we’re still in this phase, but we are rapidly approaching the next one — Optimism and the “promise of proximity” (bringing people closer together). After initial concerns, we start to see the practical implications of the technology and any problems it can solve. With virtual reality, for example, we can connect audiences with environments they could only previously interact with in 2-D. We can generate empathy for characters living thousands of miles away often in far-flung corners of the world.

So with that in mind, I researched how the news media and the public reacted when previous mediums were invented. While this may not be the most scientific experiment out there, it was definitely an entertaining exercise. So let’s jump in.


Phase one: In 1842, Congress was asked to provide funds for a telegraph between Baltimore and New York City. Senator George McDuffie challenged this “absurd” idea by sarcastically asking, “Is the telegraph going to transmit letters and newspapers?

Phase two: Sixteen years later, in 1858, the world had squarely moved on from uncertainty when the first transatlantic cable was laid from England to the United States and President Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged messages. The Times of London raved, “The civilized world will beat in a single pulse,” and a bright promised a more connected world.


Phase one: A Boston Post editorial from 1865 declared radio would be “of no practical value” because “well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires.”

Phase two: But that uncertainty turned into a promise of proximity and of a more connected world. A New York Times article from 1899 mused about the potential of radio: “All the nations of the earth would be put upon terms of intimacy.”


Phase one: A New York Times review of a demonstration of television at the 1939 World’s Fair expressed concerned on its future, saying, “People have to sit and keep their eyes on the screen. The average American doesn’t have time for that.”

Phase two: The Indianapolis Star predicted that this new medium would bring people closer to each other: “People will see each other as if they were in the same room.”

The Internet

Phase one: In 1995, even one of the investors of the Internet thought that his creation was doomed for failure. “It will go supernova in 1996.”

Phase two: Years later, the MIT Technology Review pointed out that “Human kind is now almost entirely connected.” This is the stage where we predict unpreceded proximity between people.

Can we see this same trend with Virtual Reality?

My wife Rachel travels virtually from NYC to a migrant camp in Calais, France.

Phase one: A very respected game designer, Warren Spector, argued in a 2014 interview that people “don’t want to look stupid in a VR headset” and that “if you are wearing a headset you can’t see someone sneaking behind you with a baseball bat,” which is a valid concern.

Phase two (?): Just a year later, in 2015, a program director at the United Nations said, “VR will eliminate the distance and create empathy.” In fact, the UN is using virtual reality to connect diplomats with refugees in Syria. So I leave you with the question:

Have we reached the second phase of promise already?

This post is based on a recent talk I gave at a NYC Media Lab event, “Exploring Future Reality”. I explore the future of journalism The Associated Press through partnerships in #VirtualReality #Automation #Data #UGC #Drones| I am a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center and Berkman Center at Harvard University.

Thoughts on Media is a community publication on Medium, curated by ReadThisThing.

Like what you read? Give Francesco Marconi a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.