Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology which allows a user to interact with a computer-simulated environment, be it a real or imagined one. Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback, in medical and gaming applications. Users can interact with a virtual environment or a virtual artifact (VA) either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal devices such as a wired glove, the Polhemus boom arm, and omnidirectional treadmill. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world, for example, simulations for pilot or combat training, or it can differ significantly from reality, as in VR games. In practice, it is currently very difficult to create a high-fidelity virtual reality experience, due largely to technical limitations on processing power, image resolution and communication bandwidth. However, those limitations are expected to eventually be overcome as processor, imaging and data communication technologies become more powerful and cost-effective over time.

(Image of a flightsimulator using Virtual Reality technology)



The origin of the term virtual reality is uncertain. The Judas Mandala, a 1982 novel by Dan Brodes where the context of use is somewhat different from that defined above. The VR developer Jaron Lanier claims that he coined the term. A related term coined by Myron Krueger, "artificial reality", has been in use since the 1970s. The concept of virtual reality was popularized in mass media by movies such as Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man (and others mentioned below), and the VR research boom of the 1990s was motivated in part by the non-fiction book Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold. The book served to demystify the subject, making it more accessible to less technical researchers and enthusiasts, with an impact similar to what his book The Virtual Community had on virtual community research lines closely related to VR.

VR timeline

Morton Heilig wrote in the 1950s of an "Experience Theater" that could encompass all the senses in an effective manner, thus drawing the viewer into the onscreen activity. He built a prototype of his vision dubbed the Sensorama in 1962, along with five short films to be displayed in it while engaging multiple senses (sight, sound, smell, and touch). Predating digital computing, the Sensorama was a mechanical device, which reportedly still functions today. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland, with the help of his student Bob Sproull, created what is widely considered to be the first virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) head mounted display (HMD) system. It was primitive both in terms of user interface and realism, and the HMD to be worn by the user was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling, and the graphics comprising the virtual environment were simple wireframe rooms. The formidable appearance of the device inspired its name, The Sword of Damocles. Also notable among the earlier hypermedia and virtual reality systems was the Aspen Movie Map, which was created at MIT in 1977. The program was a crude virtual simulation of Aspen, Colorado in which users could wander the streets in one of three modes: summer, winter, and polygons. The first two were based on photographs — the researchers actually photographed every possible movement through the city's street grid in both seasons — and the third was a basic 3-D model of the city. In the late 1980s the term "virtual reality" was popularized by Jaron Lanier, one of the modern pioneers of the field. Lanier had founded the company VPL Research (from "Virtual Programming Languages") in 1985, which developed and built some of the seminal "goggles n' gloves" systems of that decade.


It is unclear exactly where the future of virtual reality is headed. In the short run, the graphics displayed in the HMD will soon reach a point of near realism. The audio capabilities will move into a new realm of three dimensional sound. This refers to the addition of sound channels both above and below the individual. The virtual reality application of this future technology will most likely be in the form of over ear headphones.

Within existing technological limits, sight and sound are the two senses which best lend themselves to high quality simulation. There are however attempts being currently made to simulate smell. The purpose of current research is linked to a project aimed at treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans by exposing them to combat simulations, complete with smells. Although it is often seen in the context of entertainment by popular culture, this illustrates the point that the future of VR is very much tied into therapuetic, training, and engineering demands. Given that fact, a full sensory immersion beyond basic tactile feedback, sight, sound, and smell is unlikely to be a goal in the industry. It is worth mentioning that simulating smells, while it can be done very realistically requires costly R&D to make each odor, and the machine itself is expensive and specialized, using capsules tailor made for it. Thus far basic, and very strong smells such as burning rubber, cordite, gasoline fumes, and so-forth have been made. Something complex such as a food product or specific flower would be prohibitively expensive (see the perfume industry as an example).

In order to engage the other sense of taste, the brain must be manipulated directly. This would move virtual reality into the realm of simulated reality à la The Matrix. Although no form of this has been seriously developed at this point, Sony has taken the first step. On April 7, 2005, Sony went public with the information that they had filed for and received a patent for the idea of the non-invasive beaming of different frequencies and patterns of ultrasonic waves directly into the brain to recreate all five senses. There has been research to show that this is possible. Sony has not conducted any tests as of yet and says that it is still only an idea.

(example of using VR in a business room)


There has been increasing interest in the potential social impact of new technologies, such as virtual reality (as may be seen in utopian literature, within the social sciences, and in popular culture). Mychilo S. Cline, in his book, Power, Madness, and Immortality: The Future of Virtual Reality, argues that virtual reality will lead to a number of important changes in human life and activity. He argues that:

  • Virtual reality will be integrated into daily life and activity and will be used in various human ways.
  • Techniques will be developed to influence human behavior, interpersonal communication, and cognition (i.e., virtual genetics).
  • As we spend more and more time in virtual space, there will be a gradual “migration to virtual space,” resulting in important changes in economics, worldview, and culture.
  • The design of virtual environments may be used to extend basic human rights into virtual space, to promote human freedom and well-being, and to promote social stability as we move from one stage in socio-political development to the next.

Mass media

Mass media has been a great advocate and perhaps a great hindrance to its development over the years. During the research “boom” of the late 1980s into the 1990s the news media’s prognostication on the potential of VR — and potential overexposure in publishing the predictions of anyone who had one (whether or not that person had a true perspective on the technology and its limits) — built up the expectations of the technology so high as to be impossible to achieve under the technology then or any technology to date. Entertainment media reinforced these concepts with futuristic imagery many generations beyond contemporary capabilities.

Fiction books

Many science fiction books and movies have imagined characters being "trapped in virtual reality". The first modern work to use this idea was Daniel F. Galouye's novel Simulacron-3, which was made into a German teleplay titled Welt am Draht ("World on a Wire") in 1973 and into a movie titled The Thirteenth Floor in 1999. Other science fiction books have promoted the idea of virtual reality as a partial, but not total, substitution for the misery of reality (in the sense that a pauper in the real world can be a prince in VR), or have touted it as a method for creating breathtaking virtual worlds in which one may escape from Earth's now toxic atmosphere. They are not aware of this, because their minds exist within a shared, idealized virtual world known as Dream Earth, where they grow up, live, and die, never knowing the world they live in is but a dream.

An early short science fiction story — "The Veldt" — about an all too real "virtual reality" was included in the 1951 book The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury and may be the first fictional work to fully describe the concept.

Other popular fictional works that use the concept of virtual reality include William Gibson's Neuromancer which defined the concept of cyberspace, and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which he made extensive reference to the term "avatar" to describe one's representation in a virtual world.


Perhaps the earliest example of virtual reality on television is a Doctor Who serial "The Deadly Assassin". This story, first broadcast in 1976, introduced a dream-like computer-generated reality known as the Matrix (no relation to the film). The first major television series to showcase virtual reality was Star Trek: The Next Generation. They featured the holodeck, a virtual reality facility on starships, that enabled its users to recreate and experience anything they wanted. One difference from current virtual reality technology, however, was that replicators, Force fields, holograms, and transporters were used to actually recreate and place objects in the holodeck, rather than relying solely on the illusion of physical objects, as is done today.

In Japan and Hong Kong, the first anime series to use the idea of virtual reality was Video Warrior Laserion (1984).

An anime series known as Lain:Serial Experiments included a virtual reality world known as "The Wired" that eventually co-existed with the real world.

Channel 4's Gamesmaster (1992-1998) also used a VR headset in its "tips and cheats" segment.

BBC 2's Cyberzone (1993) was the first true "virtual reality" game show. It was presented by Craig Charles.

In 2005, Brazilian's Globo TV features a show where VR helmets are used by the attending audience in a space simulation called Conquista de Titã, broadcasted for more than 20 million viewers weekly.

Motion pictures

Steven Lisberger's film TRON was the first mainstream Hollywood picture to explore the idea, which was popularized more recently by the Wachowski brothers in 1999's The Matrix. The Matrix was significant in that it presented virtual reality and reality as often overlapping, and sometimes indistinguishable. Total Recall and David Cronenberg's film EXistenZ dealt with the danger of confusion between reality and virtual reality in computer games. Cyberspace became something that most movies completely misunderstood, as seen in The Lawnmower Man and Hackers. Also, the British comedy Red Dwarf used in several episodes the idea that life (or at least the life seen on the show) is a virtual reality game. This idea was also used in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Another movie that has a bizarre theme is Brainscan, where the point of the game is to be a virtual killer.

(snapshot of the movie 'The Lawnmower Man')

Music videos

The lengthy video for hard rock band Aerosmith's 1993 single "Amazing" depicted virtual reality, going so far as to show two young people participating in virtual reality simultaneously from their separate personal computers (while not knowing the other was also participating in it) in which the two engage in a steamy makeout session, sky-dive, and embark on a motorcycle journey together.


In 1991, the company (originally W Industries, later renamed) Virtuality licenced the Amiga 3000 for use in their VR machines and released a VR gaming system called the 1000CS. This was a stand-up immersive HMD platform with a tracked 3D joystick. The system featured several VR games including Dactyl Nightmare (shoot-em-up), Legend Quest (adventure and fantasy), Hero (VR puzzle), Grid Busters (shoot-em-up). Virtual Reality I Glasses Personal Display System is a visor and headphones headset that is compatible with any video input including 3D broadcasting, and usable with most game systems (Nintendo, PlayStation?, etc.). Virtual Reality World 3D Color Ninja game comes with headset visor and ankle and wrist straps that sense the player's punches and kicks. Virtual Reality Wireless TV Tennis Game comes with a toy tennis racket that senses the player's swing, while Wireless TV Virtual Reality Boxing includes boxing gloves that the player wears and jabs with. Nintendo's Virtual Boy was sold for only one year, 1995. Aura Interactor Virtual Reality Game Wear is a chest and back harness through which the player can feel punches, explosions, kicks, uppercuts, slam-dunks, crashes, and bodyblows. It works with Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.

In the Mage: The Ascension role-playing game, the mage tradition of the Virtual Adepts is presented as the real creators of VR. The Adepts' ultimate objective is to move into virtual reality, scrapping their physical bodies in favour of improved virtual ones. Also, the .hack series centers on a virtual reality video game. This shows the potentially dangerous side of virtual reality, demonstrating the adverse effects on human health and possible viruses, including a comatose state that some players assume. Metal Gear Solid bases heavily on VR usage, either as a part of the plot, or simply to guide the players through training sessions. In Kingdom Hearts II, the character Roxas lives in a virtual Twilight Town until he merges with Sora. In System Shock, the player has implants making him able to enter into a kind of cyberspace. Its sequel, System Shock 2 also features some minor levels of VR.


A side effect of the chic image that has been cultivated for virtual reality in the media is that advertising and merchandise have been associated with VR over the years to take advantage of the buzz. This is often seen in product tie-ins with cross-media properties, especially gaming licenses, with varying degrees of success. The NES Power Glove by Mattel from the 1980s was an early example as well as the U-Force? and later, the Sega Activator. Marketing ties between VR and video games are not to be unexpected, given that much of the progress in 3D computer graphics and virtual environment development (traditional hallmarks of VR) has been driven by the gaming industry over the last decade.

Health care education

While its use is still not widespread, virtual reality is finding its way into the training of health care professionals. Use ranges from anatomy instruction (example) to surgery simulation (example). Annual conferences are held to examine the latest research in utilizing virtual reality in the medical fields.

Therapeutic uses

The primary use of VR in a therapeutic role is its application to various forms of exposure therapy, ranging from phobia treatments, to newer approaches to treating Post-traumatic stress disorder. A very basic VR simulation with simple sight and sound models has been shown to be invaluable in phobia treatment (notable examples would be various zoophobias, and acrophobia) as a step between basic exposure therapy such as the use of simulacra and true exposure. A much more recent application is being piloted by the U.S. Navy to use a much more complex simulation to immerse veterans (specifically of Iraq) suffering from PTSD in simulations of urban combat settings. While this sounds counterintuitive, talk therapy has limited benefits for people with PTSD, which is now thought by many to be a result of changes either to the limbic system in particular, or a systemic change in stress response. Much as in phobia treatment, exposure to the subject of the trauma or fear seems to lead to desensitization, and a significant reduction in symptoms. Some information on this can be found at this Businessweek article as well as this Office of Naval Research article.

Real estate

The real estate sector has used the term "virtual reality" for websites that offer panoramic images laced into a viewer such as QuickTime? in which the viewer can rotate to see all 360 degrees of the image.

A Phoenix-based research and design company has launched what they call a VuPOD. Using this device, a prospective buyer can request the images of any property for sale and see them in the VuPOD. The images immerse the viewer in a full 360 degree image that surrounds them, complete with floor plans of the property so the viewer can tell where the room is in relation to the rest of the property.


Virtual reality has been heavily criticized for being an inefficient method for navigating non-geographical information. At present, the idea of ubiquitous computing is very popular in user interface design, and this may be seen as a reaction against VR and its problems. In reality, these two kinds of interfaces have totally different goals and are complementary. The goal of ubiquitous computing is to bring the computer into the user's world, rather than force the user to go inside the computer. The current trend in VR is actually to merge the two user interfaces to create a fully immersive and integrated experience. See simulated reality for a discussion of what might have to be considered if a flawless virtual reality technology was possible. Another obstacle is the headaches due to eye strain, caused by VR headsets. RSI can also result from repeated use of the handset gloves.

Pioneers and notables

  • [Ivan Sutherland]]
  • [Fred Brooks]]
  • [Scott Fisher]]
  • [Oliver Grau]]
  • [Thomas A. DeFanti|Tom DeFanti]]
  • [Maurice Benayoun]]
  • [Jeffrey Shaw]]
  • [Char Davies]]
  • [David Deutsch]]
  • [Roy S. Kalawsky]]
  • [Morton Heilig]]
  • [Gregory Peter Panos]]
  • [Myron Krueger]]
  • [Jaron Lanier]]
  • [Banff Centre]]
  • [Daniel J. Sandin|Dan Sandin]]
  • [Susumu Tachi]]
  • [Mark Pesce]]
  • [Warren Robinett]]
  • [Mark Bolas]]
  • [Mel Slater]]
  • [Jacquelyn Ford Morie]]
  • [Maarten van Grinsven]]
  • [Doug Church]]

References and notes


  • Brooks Jr., F. P. (1999). "What's Real About Virtual Reality?", IEEE Computer Graphics And Applications, 19(6), 16
  • Burdea, G. and P. Coffet (2003). Virtual Reality Technology, Second Edition. Wiley-IEEE Press.
  • Kalawsky, R. S. (1993). The Science of Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments: A Technical, Scientific and Engineering Reference on Virtual Environments, Addison-Wesley?, Wokingham, England ; Reading, Mass.
  • Kelly, K., A. Heilbrun and B. Stacks (1989). "Virtual Reality; an Interview with Jaron Lanier", Whole Earth Review, Fall 1989, no. 64, pp. 108(12)
  • Myron W. Krueger|Krueger, M. W. (1991). Artificial reality|Artificial Reality II, Addison-Wesley?, Reading, Massachusetts
  • Lanier, J., and F. Biocca (1992). “An Insider's View of the Future of Virtual Reality.” Journal of Communication, 42(4), 150
  • Rheingold, H. (1992). Virtual Reality, Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y.
  • Robinett, W. (1994). “Interactivity and Individual Viewpoint in Shared Virtual Worlds: The Big Screen vs. Networked Personal Displays.” Computer Graphics, 28(2), 127
  • Slater, M., Usoh, M. (1993). “The Influence of a Virtual Body on Presence in Immersive Virtual Environments” Virtual Reality International 93, Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference on Virtual Reality, London, April 1993, pages 34--42. Meckler, 1993
  • Stanney, K. M. ed. (2002). Handbook of Virtual environments: Design, Implementation, and Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, New Jersey
  • Sutherland, I. E. (1965). "The Ultimate Display". Proceedings of IFIP 65, vol 2, pp. 506-508
  • Goslin, M, and Morie, J. F., (1996). "Virtopia" Emotional experiences in Virtual Environments", Leonardo, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 95-100.
  • Robles-De-La-Torre G. The Importance of the Sense of Touch in Virtual and Real Environments. IEEE Multimedia 13(3), Special issue on Haptic User Interfaces for Multimedia Systems, pp. 24-30 (2006).
  • Hayward V, Astley OR, Cruz-Hernandez? M, Grant D, Robles-De-La-Torre? G. Haptic interfaces and devices. Sensor Review 24(1), pp. 16-29 (2004).
  • Monkman. G.J. ‑ An Electrorheological Tactile Display ‑ Presence (Journal of Teleoperators and Virtual Environments) ‑ Vol. 1, issue 2, pp. 219-228, MIT Press, July 1992.
  • Monkman. G.J. - 3D Tactile Image Display - Sensor Review - Vol 13, issue 2, pp. 27-31, MCB University Press, April 1993.
  • Klein. D, D. Rensink, H. Freimuth, G.J. Monkman, S. Egersdörfer, H. Böse & M. Baumann - Modelling the Response of a Tactile Array using an Electrorheological Fluids - Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, vol 37, no. 5, pp794-803, 2004
  • Klein. D, H. Freimuth, G.J. Monkman, S. Egersdörfer, A. Meier, H. Böse M. Baumann, H. Ermert & O.T. Bruhns - Electrorheological Tactile Elements - Mechatronics - Vol 15, No 7, pp883-897 - Pergamon, September 2005.

External links

Information and commentary

Companies that sell VR equipment

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