Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology which allows a user to intereact with a computer-simulated environment. Most 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 and experimental systems have included limited tactile information, known as force feedback.

Users can interact with a virtual environment 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/or 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.


The origin of the term virtual reality is uncertain though it has been credited to The Judas Mandala, a 1982 novel by Damien Broderick where the context of use is somewhat different from that defined above. 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 as '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 heretofore niche area, 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.

While virtual reality originally denoted a fully immersive tethered system, the term has since been used to describe systems lacking wired gloves, full body touch suits, etc., such as those driven by VRML and X3D on the World Wide Web and occasionally even text-based interactive systems such as MOOs or MUDs. Non-immersive virtual reality uses a normal monitor, and the person manipulates the virtual environment using a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick or a similar input device. The term was used in the early 1990s to denote 3D computer and video games, particularly first-person shooters.

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 aural aspect 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.

With our technological limits today, sight and sound are the only two senses that will be able to be replicated almost flawlessly. In order to engage the other senses of touch, smell, and taste, the brain must be manipulated directly. This would move virtual reality into the realm of a vivid dream not dissimilar to "The Matrix". Although no form of this has been seriously developed at this point, Sony has taken the first step.

On April 7th, 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 Times Online. 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.

Continued Wikipedia

Virtual Reality in the News ...

  Researchers find form of virtual body impacts perception with immersive virtual reality   PhysOrg - July 16, 2013
The body of the participant was substituted by a gender-matched virtual body, viewed from first person perspective, onto which body and head movements were mapped in real time. The body could also be seen as reflected in a virtual mirror as shown. The body each participant viewed depended on the condition C (for Child) or A (for Adult) to which each one was assigned.

Adults become more like children in a virtual world   BBC - July 16, 2013

In a virtual world adults in a child-like body start to perceive the world more like a child, a study has shown. Adults were either placed in a virtual four-year-old body or an adult body scaled down to the same size. It was found that participants in the child's body overestimated the size of objects and identified better with child-like attributes. Wearing a head mounted display and a motion capture suit that tracks body movements, adults were able to move in a virtual world just as they would in the real world. Previous research has already shown that the brain is amenable to accepting such illusory changes. So if a person moves at the same time their virtual body does, they feel as if they are really moving.

Virtual reality you can reach out and touch   PhysOrg - July 1, 2010

A team of European researchers has "virtually" teleported real objects through cyberspace, touched things in virtual reality and even felt the movements of a virtual dance partner. It sounds like science fiction, but advances in haptic technology and a new approach to generating virtual reality (VR) content are helping to create virtual experiences that are far more realistic and immersive than anything achieved before. Not only do users see and hear their virtual surroundings, objects and avatars, but they can touch them as well, paving the way for new applications in telepresence, telemedicine, industrial design, gaming and entertainment.

The first virtual reality technology to let you see, hear, smell, taste and touch   PhysOrg - March 4, 2009

The first virtual reality headset that can stimulate all five senses will be unveiled at a major science event in London on March 4th. What was it really like to live in Ancient Egypt? What did the streets there actually look, sound and smell like? For decades, Virtual Reality has held out the hope that, one day, we might be able visit all kinds of places and periods as 'virtual' tourists. To date, though, Virtual Reality devices have not been able to stimulate simultaneously all five senses with a high degree of realism. But with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), scientists from the Universities of York and Warwick believe they have been able to pinpoint the necessary expertise to make this possible, in a project called 'Towards Real Virtuality'. 'Real Virtuality' is a term coined by the project team to highlight their aim of providing a 'real' experience in which all senses are stimulated in such a way that the user has a fully immersive perceptual experience, during which s/he cannot tell whether or not it is real. Teams at York and Warwick now aim to link up with experts at the Universities of Bangor, Bradford and Brighton to develop the 'Virtual Cocoon' - a new Real Virtuality device that can stimulate all five senses much more realistically than any other current or prospective device. For the user the 'Virtual Cocoon' will consist of a headset incorporating specially developed electronics and computing capabilities. It could help unlock the full potential benefits of Real Virtuality in fields such as education, business and environmental protection.

   "Body Swapping" Becomes "Reality"    National Geographic - December 3, 2008
Using virtual reality goggles, a kitchen knife, and mannequins, scientists can now reportedly make subjects "feel" another "body" being cut, among other sensations.

Strange Experiments Create Body-Swapping Experiences    Live Science - December 2, 2008

Scientists now have manipulated people's perceptions to make them think they have swapped bodies with another human or even a "humanoid body," experiencing the sensations that the other would feel and giving the illusion of being inside the other's body.

Out-of-body experience recreated BBC - August 23, 2007

Experts have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience in volunteers. The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people. Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere. The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies. For some, out-of-body experiences or OBEs occurs spontaneously, while for others it is linked to dangerous circumstances, a near-death experience, a dream-like state or use of alcohol or drugs.

Out-of-Body Experiences Simulated Using Virtual Reality Live Science - August 23, 2007

New virtual reality experiments show the brain can be tricked into believing it's outside the body, lending credence to the strange claims of some patients and shedding light on how the brain might generate its "self image." Researchers equipped subjects with virtual-reality goggles that showed images from a stereoscopic video camera setup - two cameras spaced like a pair of eyes. When placed behind the person wearing the goggles, the cameras acted as a "virtual self" that looked at the subject's back. As subjects watched themselves from behind, an experimenter prodded their chests with one hand while prodding the air just below the cameras at the same time. Because subjects could see the experimenter's hand but not the spot it was poking, researchers said subjects felt as if they were being poked in the chest - outside of their body.