Virtual Reality: Evolution through Time

According to the latest IDC report, the Virtual Reality (VR)/Augmented Reality (AR) market is forecast to grow 100% year on year for the next 4 years. Annual growth on total spending for VR/AR products and services is projected at 113% with estimated spending worldwide to hit $215Bn by 2021. Massive growth projections are fueling the promise of virtual reality, but will it live up to the hype this time around?


Back to roots

Spoken about for decades, virtual reality has always held tremendous promise. One of the earliest ideas of virtual reality was brought to life by Morton Heilig in the 1950’s when he filed for a patent that described a head-mounted display device, called the Telesphere Mask. In the 1960s, he patented a sensorama simulator, a machine that is one of the earliest examples of immersive, multi-sensory technology in which the user experiences not just the 3D view of the street but also the wind, the sound and the smells of the city. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland created the first virtual reality head-mounted display system, referred to as the Sword of Damocles. The 1980’s saw computer scientist, Jaron Lanier, popularize the word virtual reality and the 1990’s saw the emergence of companies on the virtual reality scene with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, SEGA VR and Console, and SEOS 120/40 HMD among others. These inventions, even though ahead of their time, failed to make the anticipated impact.


Figure 1. Sensorama Simulator, US Patent 3,050,870

     Figure 2. Telesphere Mask, US Patent 2,955,156


The tipping point

It was not until Facebook’s $2B acquisition of Oculus, brainchild of 22-year-old Palmer Luckey, in 2014 that Virtual Reality reached its tipping point. The conversation on virtual reality went mainstream with some of the biggest technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony joining the movement in their search for the next big computing platform.

The inventions in the field of virtual reality mirrored the market situation with a clear upswing in patenting activity in 2014 and a sharp year on year increase afterwards. China, US and South Korea were the top filing countries for the period 1997-2017, accounting for 75% of the total number of patent applications. The top patent assignees were LeEco (from China), Sony, Samsung, Facebook and Microsoft.


Figure 3. Patent Publication trend for Virtual Reality. Source: Derwent Innovation, 1997-2017.


Figure 4. Top corporations that own virtual reality patent applications. Source: Derwent Innovation, 1997- 2017.


Figure 5. Top countries where the virtual reality patent applications originated. Source: Derwent Innovation, 1997- 2017.


Virtual reality battlefield

Oculus’ earliest patent, USD701206S1, published in 2013, covered the ornamental design of a virtual reality headset. This patent drew second generation citation references from Morton Heilig’s, US Patent 2955156 for a Telespheric Mask demonstrating the flow of technology along the years (Figures 4a and 4b). Quickly it received citations from Google, HTC, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft among others (Figure 5), thus, paving the way for the next generation of virtual reality headsets. It is the virtual reality headset space where all the action is.

The head-mounted displays such as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Sony PlayStation VR connect using a cord to either a PC or a game console to create a walk-around virtual space. Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR offer an inexpensive alternative using a smart phone held in front of the eyes and inexpensive lenses to produce very basic virtual reality results. It is the latter which has gained wider consumer adoption given its low-cost. Is there a headset that bridges the gap? Oculus Go, a self-contained virtual reality system with untethered capabilities at an attractive price was launched recently and there are more such headsets in the pipeline.

A landscape of patent applications in virtual reality published from 2014 onwards (Figure 6) also reveals close competition between the major players: Samsung, Facebook, Pico VR, LeEco, Google and Microsoft.


Backward Citations of USD701206S1

Figure 6a. Two generations of Backward Citations for USD701206S1. Source: Derwent Innovation.


Forward Citations USD701206S1

Figure 6b. Two generations of Backward Citations for USD701206S1. Source: Derwent Innovation.


Figure 7. Forward Citations for USD701206S1. Source: Derwent Innovation.


Figure 8. Virtual Reality Patent landscape. Source: Derwent Innovation, 2012-2017.


The Road Ahead

 Recently, Discovery partnered with Google on a virtual reality travel series that spans all seven continents. MasterCard and Swarovski launched a virtual reality shopping app for a home décor line. Manufacturing industry is using virtual reality to evaluate and train welders. The applications of virtual reality are growing far and wide beyond just entertainment and gaming. Below are some of the examples of patent applications published in 2017 that predicts what is to come. Figure 7 is a patent on the use of virtual reality in surgical procedures patented by Immersive Touch and the Board of the Trustees of the University of Illionois. Figure 8 is a patent application from Wal-Mart for a Virtual Conference Room.


Figure 9. US9563266B2.


Figure 10. US9654734B1.

Rapid improvements in technology, availability of investments and commitment from the biggest technology companies have transformed the virtual reality landscape in the last few years, and the future looks bright with the best yet to come.

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