What Is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR) refers to a computer-generated simulation in which a person can interact within an artificial three-dimensional environment using electronic devices, such as special goggles with a screen or gloves fitted with sensors. In this simulated artificial environment, the user is able to have a realistic-feeling experience.


Understanding Virtual Reality

The concept of virtual reality is built on the natural combination of two words: the virtual and the real. The former means “nearly” or “conceptually,” which leads to an experience that is near-reality through the use of technology. Software creates and serves up virtual worlds that are experienced by users who wear hardware devices such as goggles, headphones, and special gloves. Together, the user can view and interact with the virtual world as if from within.

To understand virtual reality, let’s draw a parallel with real-world observations. We understand our surroundings through our senses and the perception mechanisms of our body. Senses include taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing, as well as spatial awareness and balance. The inputs gathered by these senses are processed by our brains to make interpretations of the objective environment around us. Virtual reality attempts to create an illusory environment that can be presented to our senses with artificial information, making our minds believe it is (almost) a reality.

Virtual Reality Use Cases

The simplest example of VR is a three dimensional (3D) movie. Using special 3D glasses, one gets the immersive experience of being a part of the movie with on-spot presence. The leaf falling from a tree appears to float right in front of the viewer, or the shot of a speeding car going over a cliff makes the viewer feel the chasm’s depth and may give some viewers the feeling of falling. Essentially, the light and sound effects of a 3D movie make our vision and hearing senses believe that it’s all happening right in front of us, though nothing exists in physical reality.

Early work

Artists, performers, and entertainers have always been interested in techniques for creating imaginative worlds, setting narratives in fictional spaces, and deceiving the senses. Numerous precedents for the suspension of disbelief in an artificial world in artistic and entertainment media preceded virtual reality. Illusionary spaces created by paintings or views have been constructed for residences and public spaces since antiquity, culminating in the monumental panoramas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Panoramas blurred the visual boundaries between the two-dimensional images displaying the main scenes and the three-dimensional spaces from which these were viewed, creating an illusion of immersion in the events depicted. This image tradition stimulated the creation of a series of media—from futuristic theatre designs, stereopticons, and 3-D movies to IMAX movie theatres—over the course of the 20th century to achieve similar effects. For example, the Cinerama widescreen film format, originally called Vitarama when invented for the 1939 New York World’s Fair by Fred Waller and Ralph Walker, originated in Waller’s studies of vision and depth perception. Waller’s work led him to focus on the importance of peripheral vision for immersion in an artificial environment, and his goal was to devise a projection technology that could duplicate the entire human field of vision. The Vitarama process used multiple cameras and projectors and an arc-shaped screen to create the illusion of immersion in the space perceived by a viewer. Though Vitarama was not a commercial hit until the mid-1950s (as Cinerama), the Army Air Corps successfully used the system during World War II for anti-aircraft training under the name Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer—an example of the link between entertainment technology and military simulation that would later advance the development of virtual reality.

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