Though the idea still seems futuristic and far-fetched, virtual reality is hardly new.
Some think that French playwright Antonin Artaud was the first to use the term "virtual reality." In his 1938 book "The Theater and Its Double," Artaud speaks of the theater as "la réalite virtuelle:" a reality that is both illusory and purely fictitious [source: Artaud]. Then, in the 1950s, inventor Morton Helig sought to blur the lines between illusion and reality with a device he called a Sensorama. His prototype, which never went into production, featured a single-seat projection booth that used wide-angle 3D images, stereo sound, realistic smells, a moving seat and sensations like wind to give viewers the sense that they were, for instance, riding a motorcycle.
Since then, the line between reality and virtual reality has grown steadily thinner. Though the Na'vi-human avatars of 2009's "Avatar" and the holodeck of 1987's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" remain, for now, in the realm of fantasy, plenty of professionals are applying virtual-reality technology to real-world problems every day. Doctors now use virtual reality to learn how to operate laparoscopic surgical instruments. The military employs virtual reality to simulate war games and train soldiers. Kids regularly use game systems like Wii and Xbox Kinect to play virtual-reality games. NASA is using virtual reality to control its Mars rover, Curiosity. And Internet superpower Google is expected to begin releasing "Google Goggles," an augmented-reality device, as early as late 2012.
Over the years, various terms, from "somatic cognition" to "augmented reality", have been coined to describe emerging virtual-reality technologies. Yet "virtual reality" (VR) is the moniker that seems to have stuck. Which Time Magazine 100-Most-Influential-People honoree, arcane instrument collector, musician, composer, author, thinker and dreadlocked Jew popularized the term "virtual reality" -- and could he really be the most interesting man in the world? Find out next!