Virtual reality

Virtual reality

Computer-simulated environment simulating physical presence in real or imagined worlds.

Virtual reality is a computer-simulated environment simulating physical presence in real or imagined worlds. Users wear hardware devices such as goggles, headphones, and gloves or controllers which allow them to interact with the virtual world.

Most virtual reality systems work to track a user's motions, their eye movements, and to correspondingly adjust the users display to reflect the perspective changes. This is to create or simulate immersion in the virtual world. With their movements, users should experience a shift in environment as they move through it, a corresponding shift in any three dimensional sound-scaping, and, if the hardware permits, haptic feedback to indicate they have interacted with the environment. Any latency, also known as lag, in the virtual reality system reacting to the user's real-time movements can negatively impact the immersion of the virtual reality experience and has caused motion sickness in some users.


Developed in 1957 by Morton Heilig, a filmmaker, the Sensorama was a large booth-like machine intended to combine multiple technologies to give up to four people the illusion of being in a fully immersive world. This included smell, stereo sound, vibrations, and even atmospheric effects. Morton Heilig later refined the Sensorama into a headset in 1960 which promised stereoscopic 3D images, wide vision, and stereo sound. This was the earliest patent for a head-mounted display.

Image of the Sensorama by Morton Heilig.
Virtual Reality head-mounted display (HMD)

Despite Morton Heilig's patent for a head-mounted Sensorama, Ivan Sutherland created the first head-mounted display (HMD) for virtual reality in 1968. The early HMD design connected a stereoscopic display depicting simple virtual wireframe shapes which changed perspectives as the user moved their head. The HMD was suspended from the ceiling on a mechanical arm and a user could only stand in one spot while wearing it.

From this project, Thomas Furness developed a flight simulator program known as the "Super Cockpit" in 1986. This program gave a trainee pilot a head-mounted display capable of projecting computer-generated 3D maps, infrared, radar imagery, and avionics data. The Super Cockpit featured integration between movement tracking and aircraft control.

The 1980's also saw the founding of VPL Research, headed by Jaron Lanier. They began developing a range of virtual reality gear including the Dataglove and the EyePhone head-mounted display. These offered a development in virtual reality haptics. Similar to this, Nintendo released the Nintendo Power Glove which used technology similar to VPL's Dataglove and a simulation glove developed by NASA.

In 1991, head-mounted displays made their way into arcade machines, where users would play a game with immersive stereoscopic 3D visuals but with limited haptic feedback. SEGA intended to release a virtual reality headset for the Sega Genesis console in 1993, and in 1995 Nintendo released the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a 3D game console. Both of SEGA and Nintendo's ventures into virtual reality failed commercially, but they represented some of the first attempts to bring virtual reality into people's homes.

Starting in 2010, with Oculus VR developed their Rift head-mounted display. This became and influenced the popular commercial application of virtual reality which uses a HMD and controllers to allow a user to immerse themselves in a virtual world. Users can do this at their computer desk or in their living room. Most of these systems, including the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, offer stereoscopic 3D imaging, stereo sound, two handheld controllers (some with limited haptic feedback), and can include cameras to offer greater movement tracking. A lot of these headsets also use accelerometers and gyroscopes, or both, to allow a headset to track a users head movements and offer a virtual reality experience free from cameras to track movement.

In 2018, Oculus released their Oculus Go and Oculus Quest headsets which were two standalone virtual reality systems that did not need a computer, games console, or mobile phone to work. These systems also worked to increase the affordability of virtual reality headsets.

Head-mounted displays have been paired with various input devices, including:

  • joysticks
  • force balls and tracking balls
  • controller wands
  • datagloves
  • voice recognition
  • motion trackers and bodysuits
  • treadmills
Virtual Environments

Other virtual reality systems include virtual environments, or Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVE). These systems project images on walls, floor and ceiling of a room. Users wear glasses to help the immersion of the virtual environment. CAVE systems offer groups of people to share the virtual reality experience and some systems allow them to play as part of a team. The CAVE works through projectors positioned above or outside of a room and controlled by a users physical movement. The glasses worn by users are synchronized with the projectors and convey separate images per eye so the user sees the correct image at the correct time to maintain immersion.

Image of a person in a virtual reality CAVE

Despite Myron Kruegere's "artificial reality" systems and subsequent VIDEOPLACE interactive VR system, it was not until 1994 that the Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) was introduced. VRML is a standard file format for representing 3D interactive vector graphics and was designed with the World Wide Web in mind.

After the 1997 founding of the Web3D consortium, an industry standard for web-based 3D graphics was developed. Subsequent to this was the development of X3D from the VRML framework. X3D is a royalty-free ISO/IEC standard for representing 3D computer graphics. The file format support includes XML, ClassicVRML, Compressed Binary Encoding and a draft JSON encoding. X3D is the successor to VRML and features extensions to VRML, the ability to encode a scene using XML syntax and Open Inventor syntax of VRML97.

Following X3D, WebVR was introduced. WebVR was an experimental JavaScript application programming interface that enabled applications to interact with virtual reality devices (such as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Open Source Virtual Reality). WebVR was implemented in Firefox and Chromium-based browsers before being superseded by the more powerful WebXR API capable of representing virtual reality and augmented reality devices simultaneously.


Virtual Reality is used for entertainment, which may be the most popular application of the technology. In entertainment, virtual reality can be used for gaming, through a virtual reality head-mounted display or in virtual environments. Cinema's using 3D can also be considered virtual reality, although they do not offer the same immersion level of headsets.

In Gaming, head-mounted displays (or virtual reality headsets), often aided by computer systems or game consoles, allow players to play games in a higher level of immersion than traditional gaming. This can include sport games such as tennis or first-person perspective games allowing users to engage with a virtual environment and virtual enemies. The control or sensor wands work to determine the speed and accuracy of the users movements to create immersive experiences and real-to-life reactions within the game experience.

Music videos, live music events, short films, live sporting events and theme parks have developed virtual reality applications or products where users can immerse in a film, feel like they are at a sporting event, or ride a rollercoaster they might otherwise not have a chance to visit. YouTube offers videos in VR which users can watch using head-mounted displays as simple as Google's cardboard head-mounted display, which uses a cardboard structure around a mobile phone to create a low-immersion virtual reality experience.

There are art galleries, both public and private, which offer virtual reality experiences. These experiences can include visiting famous art galleries, visiting curated collections which do not otherwise exist, the ability to experience art users might otherwise not have a chance to visit, visit private galleries otherwise closed to the public, and these virtual reality experiences can allow users to partake in art sales and purchase art while in a virtual reality experience.


Since Thomas Furness' 1986 "Super Cockpit", virtual reality has been used for training, simulation and education. Military and space programs have used virtual reality to recreate and train users in scenarios which are too dangerous or too difficult to replicate safely. This can include vehicle simulations and squad combat simulations. NASA used virtual reality in 1989 to develop a virtual reality simulation trainer for astronauts. Their simulation included the use of gloves to help the astronauts learn how to use tools in otherwise difficult environments.

Similar to military applications, medicine has used virtual reality to to train medical students in surgical procedures and to help students learn how to diagnose a patient. The University of Toronto and other research universities have used virtual reality to explore microbiology for students and researchers. This has allowed students and researchers to be inside a small cell, bacteria, or virus to better understand how they are structured, how they interact within themselves and within a larger organism.

Architects and engineers have used virtual reality to show students complex structures and also hard to reach structures, such as bridges. The use of virtual reality allows students to interact with models and offers them a level of immersion to understand complex topics and structures and the ability to build structures without any real-world consequences of failure.

The education use for virtual reality can also be as simple as simulating real work spaces for workplace occupational safety and health training. It can allow users to develop skills without real-world consequences in the case of a workplace hazard or injury. This workplace training can include driver training, miner training, and commercial flight training.


Similar to education uses, virtual reality is used to simulate environments or structures. For architects, this can mean creating virtual models of building plans to allow people to walk around and through the structure. In this case, the use of virtual reality can give people a better idea of how moving through a building will feel over a miniature model, and give a better idea of the buildings features and scale. For automotive engineers, virtual reality is used to build virtual prototypes of new vehicles, testing them thoroughly, and increasing the overall efficiency of developing an automobile.

The real estate industry has also begun to use virtual reality to allow potential buyers or renters to virtually walk through a property. Real estate agents can also use virtual reality to show prospective buyers a furnished space despite a space being empty in real life. These tours can increase the amount of potential buyers a real estate agent can reach, and they can offer out of market prospective buyers the option to virtually experience a space without travel expenses.

Virtual reality has also been used for marketing and e-commerce simulations. OnePlus, a mobile phone manufacturer, used virtual reality to launch one of their phones in 2015. Though limited, the virtual reality offered a 360 degree view of a launch building and a more immersive experience than traditional advertisements. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, similar virtual reality experiences have been offered for product launches and previews. A lot of these advertising campaigns use 360 degree video for its greater accessibility over a headset-enabled virtual reality experience.

Healthcare and treatment

Besides it's use in training and educating for healthcare, virtual reality has also found a use in psychological and physical therapy. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University and Dr. Larry Hodges of the Georgia Institute of Technology researched the use of virtual environments for treating people with phobias and other psychological conditions. The application of virtual reality for exposure therapy has allowed a less expensive and more convenient way for patients to be treated for phobias, and patients have proved more willing to try virtual exposure therapy because it does not occur in the real world. They extended this research to include the use of virtual reality for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.

Virtual reality programs are being used for rehabilitation with elderly patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This has provided these patients the opportunity to simulate real experiences they would have otherwise not experienced.

Researchers at the University of Toronto began using virtual reality to increase the quality of life for palliative care patients. Researchers Cosmin Munteanu and Sho Conte offered patients the chance to use virtual reality to explore places and have new experiences. Further, the use of virtual reality offered a break from the social isolation caused by the nature of palliative care. Both Muneanu and Conte have explored the possibility of using virtual reality to simulate difficult end-of-life discussions with patients and their families for caregivers. The use of virtual reality would allow these caregivers to have simulated conversations with various responses and offers a tool for self-reflection, learning, and training.

In 1998, at a hospital in Paris, virtual reality was used in conjunction with a robotic device to perform a remote surgery. The procedure proved challenging due to the delicate nature of surgery and the latency in the robots movements compared to the surgeon's.


There is no exact date for the invention or creation of virtual reality. The dating depends on how an individual views the use of virtual reality. The head-mounted display often associated with virtual reality was developed in 1960 and some offer this date for the invention of virtual reality. Others date the beginning to the work of Ivan Sutherland. And some suggest it was the popularization of the term "virtual reality" by Jaron Lanier that could be considered the beginning of what is considered virtual reality.

If the history of virtual reality is extended to the attempt to build a technology allowing a viewer to exist in a virtual or "non-real" situation, then the history of virtual reality could be extended further back to the idea of panoramic paintings or murals. Panoramic paintings were large paintings, often of historically significant events or moments, and were intended to fill the viewer's entire field of vision and create the illusion of being present at the scene.

Stereoscopic Viewers

Originally developed in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone, the stereoscope viewer which used two side-by-side stereoscopic images or photos to give a user a sense of depth and immersion. These were later developed for use for "virtual tourism" and show the early design principles used by low-budget modern virtual reality headsets. Charles Wheatstone's stereoscope was later followed by David Brewster's lenticular stereoscope in 1849, and followed again by William Gruber's View-Master in 1939, where the popularity of "virtual tourism" grew.

image of an early View-Master

Similar early ventures into "virtual reality" include a 1929 link trainer developed by Edward Link. This device was patented in 1931 and was the first example of a commercial flight simulator which was entirely electromechanical. During World War II over 10,000 of these link trainers were used by pilots for initial training and skills improvement.

And in the 1930's, in a science fiction story called "Pygmalion's Spectacles" by Stanley G. Weinbaum, the shape of head-mounted display-based virtual reality was first described. The story contains the idea of a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch.

Martin Heilig

In 1957, Martin Heilig developed the earliest example of immersive, multi-sensory technology, the Sensorama. This is considered one of the earliest examples of a virtual reality system. The Sensorama offered users a stereoscopic color display, fans, odor emitters, stereo-sound, and a motional chair which worked to simulate a motorcycle ride through New York.

In 1960, Martin Heilig patented his Telesphere Mask, which looks similar to modern head-mounted virtual reality displays. Through the Telesphere Mask, a user was offered three dimensional images in color, with peripheral vision, binaural sound, scents and air breezes. The Telesphere Mask was a commercial failure.


Developed in 1961 by Philco Corporation engineers, this head-mounted display included a video screen and tracking system linked to a closed circuit camera. The Headsight system was intended for use in dangerous situations and could observe an environment remotely. It was similar to helmets used by helicopter pilots.

Ivan Sutherland

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, published a paper in which he described what he called the "Ultimate Display". His concept for the ultimate display would simulate reality to the point where a user could not tell the difference from reality. And this included the use of a head-mounted display with 3D sound and tactile feedback offering users the ability to interact with objects in a virtual world in a realistic way.

By 1968, following his paper, Ivan Sutherland created what is largely considered the first head-mounted display for virtual reality applications. Called the Sword of Damocles, for the large telescoping arm which the head-mounted display hung from, the stereoscopic display showed users virtual wireframe shapes which changed perspectives as the user moved their head. This project never moved beyond the lab Ivan Sutherland worked in.

Myron Kruegere

A virtual reality computer artist, in 1969 Myron Kruegere developed a series of experiences which he termed "artificial reality" in which he developed computer-generated environments that responded to the people in it. The technology enabled people to communicate in a responsive computer environment despite their physical distance. VIDEOPLACE, the name for the resulting technology, is considered the first interactive virtual reality system.


As the haptic and optic technology involved in virtual reality developed through the 1970's and 1980's, NASA's Ames Research Center developed virtual reality systems. This included their Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) system which combined a head-mounted device with gloves offering haptic interaction and offered users a chance to interact in a virtual environment.

As well as their technology developments, NASA, along with the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, funded a lot of the research and development in virtual reality projects. Many of the early applications included vehicle simulators and training exercises.

Jaron Lanier

In 1987, Jaron Lanier coined or popularized the term "virtual reality" and is often considered one of the father's of virtual reality. Two years earlier, Jaron Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left Atari to found VPL Research, where they developed, manufactured, and sold virtual reality goggles and gloves with haptic feedback. The focus of VPL Research was to popularize virtual reality technologies. They filed for bankruptcy in 1990 and their patents were purchased by Sun Microsystems in 1999.


In 1992, the Computer Gaming World publication predicted affordable virtual reality by 1994. This came after the announcement by SEGA that they were producing a virtual reality headset as an accessory to their Sega Genesis console. The initial announcement came in 1991, and a second announcement of a refined design came in 1993. The product was never released. SEGA did release their Sega VR-1 in 1994. This was an arcade attraction capable of tracking head movement and featuring 3D polygon graphics in stereoscopic 3D.

Nintendo released their Virtual Boy portable video game console in 1995. The Virtual Boy was marketed as the first console capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D graphics. A player would use the console as a head-mounted display with a controller to allow a user to navigate a game. Although the system did not use strictly three dimensional graphics, they did use a parallax effect to create the illusion of depth. Nintendo's Virtual Boy failed to meet targets and Nintendo ceased distribution and game development in 1996.

In 2007, Google introduced their Street View feature to their Google Maps. Through Street View, users are shown a panoramic view of a specific location, although largely limited to roads, indoor buildings, and rural areas. In 2010, they introduced a stereoscopic 3D mode capable of use in a virtual reality headset.

Oculus Rift

Palmer Lucky designed the first prototype of the Oculus Rift head-mounted display virtual reality system in 2010. The prototype was capable of rotational tracking and it boasted a 90 degree field of vision unseen before in the consumer virtual reality market. In 2012, the Oculus Rift was presented for the first time at the E3 video game trade show. Oculus started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the Rift's development in the same year. The campaign was successful and raised close to USD $2.5 million.

In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion. They sent development kits of the models out through 2013 to 2014. The Oculus Rift was commercially released in March 2016. Production of the first model, the Rift CV1 was discontinued in March 2019 with the release of the Oculus Rift S.


In 2016, the release of the Oculus Rift CV1 was accompanied by the HTC's release of their Oculus Rift competitor, the VIVE StreamVR headset. The HTC Vive StreamVR headset, developed with participation from Valve, included a technology they called Lighthouse which utilized a wall-mounted tracking system allowing users free movement within a defined space.

As well, there were near 230 companies developing virtual reality related products in the same year. Some of these companies included Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Samsung. Sony filed a patent for a virtual reality technology with location tracking technology similar to the HTC Vive for their Playstation VR system.

By 2017 and on to 2019, the release of virtual reality headsets continued, with the consumer focused technology offering devices within different price ranges and with different capabilities. These included the Samsung Odyssey, the Oculus Go, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream View, Lenovo Explorer Windows Mixed Reality Headset, Powis Popup, Samsung Gear VR, LG 360, Zeiss VR One Plus, and OnePlus Loop VR.


The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 saw and increase in the use of virtual reality in clinical applications and an increase in sales of virtual reality hardware for consumers. A team from Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology worked with Virtro to develop virtual reality and artificial intelligence based training simulations for healthcare workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs are intended to increase the availability of training for healthcare workers, medical staff, and students and include simulations on the proper application of personal protective equipment in long-term care facilities.

Due to many regional lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, many music artists have used virtual reality as a way to hold concerts and live shows for audiences not allowed to congregate. The amount of people in lock down situations at home increased the sales of virtual reality equipment. Virtual reality offered users not only the chance to join virtual music events or live sporting events, but also a chance to leave their homes or play games which can near-simulate leaving home.

Virtual reality headset sales fell in 2020 due to supply issues caused by the pandemic. Despite these constraints, demand for virtual reality headsets were expected to increase, with many analysts believing the popularity of virtual reality will continue to grow.

Virtual reality industry

Virtual reality companies


October 14, 2020
Virtual Reality software lets scientists walk around inside cells
October 14, 2020
U of T researchers explore virtual reality as a microbiology teaching aid
October 14, 2020
Facebook releases Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headsets
October 14, 2020
City of London creates virtual reality map to aid office development
October 14, 2020
Researchers at U of T Mississauga tap immersive technologies to improve palliative care
October 14, 2020
Get Real, a Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) advisory firm, launched today to help businesses and not for profits implement VR and AR technologies to improve and scale their organizations.
October 14, 2020
International team develops advanced COVID-19 virtual reality training simulations
October 13, 2020
Neuro Rehab VR announces its XR Therapy System, the first clinically validated and FDA registered VR therapy system for neurological rehabilitation and physical therapy treatment and assessment in clinical environments.
October 12, 2020
Two studies published in 2018 show how Virtual Reality can aid with memory retention.
October 5, 2020
Fidelity Investments tries collaboration and onboarding via virtual reality



Helmut Dersch


Jaron Lanier

Founder of virtual reality

Michael Rondinelli


Further reading


Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (ARVR) Market 2020 Global Trends, Market Share, Industry Size, Growth, Opportunities and Forecast to 2025



September 27, 2020

Augmented Reality: "The Ultimate Display" by Ivan Sutherland, 1965

Bruce Sterling


September 20, 2009

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality

Matthew Schnipper


The Science of Virtual Reality: How VR Helps with Memory Retention

Rachel Chan


October 12, 2020

Virtual Reality

Samuel Greengard


September 2019

What is Virtual Reality (VR)? The Complete WIRED Guide

Peter Rubin, Jess Grey


March 8, 2020

Documentaries, videos and podcasts


The Evolution of Virtual Reality by 2025

July 4, 2020

The Future Tech Of Virtual Reality

April 17, 2020

What I Learned from Spending a Week in Virtual Reality | Jak Wilmot | TEDxVienna

December 19, 2019

What I Learned from Spending a Week in Virtual Reality | Jak Wilmot | TEDxVienna

December 19, 2019





Steve Jobs

San Francisco

Software- 360


Software /Hardware GIS 360

Evans and Sutherland

Salt Lake City


Invert Adventures Inc

Christian Murray


Software -360


Software/Hardware 360

Kaiser Electronics






San Francisco

Software /Hardware

Telemersion Inc.

Brad Simon


Software/Hardware -360

Virtual iO




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