This Wild Picture of Obama Wearing a VR Headset Explains Everything

40,000 years of visual media in one surprising White House photograph

Pete Souza / The White House

This remarkable photograph of President Obama wearing VR goggles in the West Wing looks like the very image of futurism. But new technologies will become old and familiar, just as all those before them have become invisible to contemporary eyes. But there they are, preserved in the amber of history, just waiting for the VR headset to join them.

Glass: 100–1800 A.D.

The Romans used glass in windows as early as the first century A.D., but it wasn’t until the third century that they became translucent. Sort of, anyway. Glassmakers would slice spheres of glass and stretch them into segments. Excepting churches, domestic glass disappeared through the Dark Ages, returning as a luxury in the 16th century, and remaining a marvel through the 1800s—just think of the Crystal Palace of London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. The White House, built by slaves at the end of the 18th century, was and remains a structure of social station, even if not the aristocratic kind.

Today, the average person doesn’t even notice the glass panes of the window visible in the Oval Office in this photograph. It disappears, invisible.

Painting: 38,000 BCE – 1909 A.D.

Humans have used pigment to capture representations for at least 40,000 years. The use of pigment captured and dried in medium as a binder, as was accomplished in the oil painting behind Ferial Govashiri, personal aide to Barack Obama, is at least a millennium old. Before early photographic technologies like the Daguerreotype came onto the scene in the 1800s, painting was the best method to capture and record the visible world. Landscape paintings like this one were popular in the East since antiquity, but didn’t rise to prominence in the West until much later—first mostly as backgrounds, and not as separate subjects until after the White House was built.

This sea- and-cityscape by the Armenian artist Carl Calusd is called Welcome. It depicts the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, with a large steam ship arriving or departing at left. The painting came to the White House in 1909, care of the Persian consulate, as did the many immigrants who traversed the Atlantic on ships like the one simulated here in pigment and medium. Unless you look for it, the painting blends back into the wall as mere decoration.

Photography: 1839 – 2007 A.D.

Silver nitrate’s capacity to darken under the influence of light was known as early as the 1600s, but it took until the early 19th century for viable photographic process to become commonplace. The Daguerreotype took over from the oil painting as a method of portraiture, particularly since its reduced cost made capturing images of people for posterity viable for commonfolk.

In the 20th century, photographs evolved from long-exposure metal and glass plates exposed in large, heavy apparatuses to silver halide-coated celluloid pocketable in handheld cameras. A marriage of optics, chemistry, and mechanics made photographs at home in newspapers, war zones, and family birthdays. Eventually the chemicals and the film were cast aside in favor of photosensitive electronics that record images digitally at zero incremental cost.

Pete Souza, the Official White House Photographer, captured the image above with a modern SLR, over the course of his duties documenting the Obama presidency for posterity. He even posted it to Instagram.

After the rise of the internet-connected, camera-equipped smartphone last decade, photographs have exploded: Americans take more photographs every two minutes than all of humanity captured across the whole of the 19th century. There are so many photos, they’ve become invisible. It’s hard even to notice that you’re looking at one.

Television: 1934 – 2000 A.D.

Cathode ray tube (CRT) displays are constructed of a vacuum tube with a phosphorescent screen at one end and a set of electron guns at the other. The electron gun fires beams at the phosphor very rapidly, causing the screen to glow in corresponding patterns to create a picture. The first commercial CRTs were made by Western Electric in the 1920s, but the first televisions didn’t appear until 1934. CRTs were used in oscilloscopes, vector displays (such as those used to play Asteroids) through the 1970s, and computer monitors.

By the turn of the millennium, television and computer displays merged. Their previously separate functions combined into the same device, the LCD monitor. Here, Govashiri, stares intently into an LCD flat-screen display that could be used equally for foreign policy or for Netflix. The glare across the screen in the photograph prevents us from knowing which for certain. So common is this scene that it hardly seems noticeable. Govashiri’s intent gaze disappears into the flatness of the screen—like yours does reading this very article.

Virtual Reality: 1965 – 2016 A.D.

Oculus, a VR headset, was first prototyped in 2012. It became one of the first massively successful Kickstarter campaigns, earning $2.4 million on that crowdfunding portal. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion.

Virtual reality technology is half a century old as a computational format. But it also owes a debt to more primitive stereoscopes of the 19th century, which provided an illusion of depth via binocular viewing of photographs. Only recently have VR goggles become small, light, and cheap enough to suggest commercial viability. (Oculus’s headset launched in March of this year, at a cost of $600.) Despite its real and potential uses in training and therapy, VR has long been the subject of dystopic scorn, not to mention masculinist fantasy.

In this image, Barack Obama experiences a VR short-film, “Through the Ages: President Obama Celebrates America’s National Parks.” The film was funded by Facebook/Oculus and produced by a “cinematic virtual reality” based in Montréal. It’s one of the many unproven but promising uses of virtual reality. Another might come straight from the White House; the Office of Science and Technology Policy has indicated its hope that VR will solve “Grand Challenges,” including “reducing the divide between the rich and poor.”

“Through the Ages” was shot during an Obama visit to Yosemite in June of this year. Were he staring straight ahead, the President would be watching himself, Inception-style. Instead, he looks up, the headset’s head-tracking technology showing a view of the falls, or the redwoods. The glory of nature that once soaked clay in ancient caves or reproduced itself in pigment bound to linen or formed zinc made phosphor to coat the backs of cathode ray tubes.

The trees, the water, the earth, the sky—perhaps someday they too will disappear into computer simulations inside binoculars. Maybe VR will die a quick death, and maybe it will become as ubiquitous as glass or photography. If the latter, VR might yet actually resolve the divide between rich and poor: when the wealthy generously permit the underclasses to take in such vistas from behind the warm screens of a VR helmet.