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.