Virtual Reality

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Virtual Reality (VR) refers to the immersive technology that creates and places human into an artificial world that is similar but different from the real world.[1] As a popular technology in the 21st century, virtual reality plays an important role in a wide variety of fields, including entertainment (VR games), social connections (remote meetings), business(virtual offices) and medical treatments(curing mental disease). VR related technology mainly includes augmented reality and mixed reality.[2]

Virtual Reality Technology can be classified into three general category based on the extent of human immersion: non-immersive VR, semi-immersive VR, and fully-immersive VR simulations. The non-immersive VR includes most 3D movie and games that portray a virtual world but the user does not enter the virtual world himself or herself. The semi-immersive VR indicates VR technology which provides an immersive virtual world for the user but the user is still somewhat exposed to the real world. The fully-immersive VR simulations refers to the VR technology that enables user to fully immerse in the artificial reality without direct visual contact to the real world.[3]

Definition and Etymology

The word 'virtual' can indicate a material or image that is created by computer related technology and appear to exist but not actually existing in the physical world.[4] The word 'reality' describe the state of things as they actually are in the physical world. [5] Combining the meaning of the two words, 'virtual reality' refers to a set of images and sounds, produced by a computer, that seem to represent a place or a situation that a person can take part in.[6]

Referring to the relative new terminology, the word 'virtual reality' is first used by Jaron Zepel Lanier, the founder of VPL Research and a pioneer in the field of virtual reality technology research, to refer the first business-grade hardware, which is invented by Jaron himself, that features the use of virtual reality systems.[7]

Related Concept and Difference

Virtual reality is closely related to the concept of augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality(MR), which are more connected to the real-world and use similar technologies.
Augmented reality(AR)
Augmented reality (AR) refers to a real-time view of the real-world environment which is augmented or enhanced by adding virtually created element to the environment. Augmented reality utilizes similar technology as virtual reality to created the virtual created element but is different from virtual reality since it is still based on the real-world and only add some virtual element to it while virtual reality creates an entire new virtual world.[8]
Mixed reality (MR)
Mixed reality refers to an environment created with the combination of both virtual world and true reality. In other words, mixed reality allows physical and virtual element to exist and interact in an environment at the same time. Compared to augmented environment, which display the real world with some virtual elements, mixed reality displays a majority of virtual world with only limited real world decorating the virtual world. In nature, mixed reality is a merging of augmented reality and virtual reality.


Because of the debating definition of virtual reality, there is no generally accepted agreement on the origin and related prototype of virtual reality. [9]The following history description of virtual reality will only include the development of modern virtual reality that fully creates a virtual world with potential real-world applications.
In 1962, Morton Heilig created a multi-sensory simulator that was able to prerecorded film in color and stereo with the augmentation of wind, scent and sound to provide virtual experiences for users. Although this first virtual reality system was able to provide all features of a virtual world, the simulator is so primitive that it was unable to perform any interactive functions to users at all.[10]

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland put forward a ultimate concept of what a virtual reality would look like in the future: a machine that will provide interactive graphics, scent, smell, touch and all other feelings that was exactly the same as the real world feelings. Though Ivan did not use the word virtual reality, he depicted all the potential function for a modern virtual reality technology.

In 1968, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull created the first virtual reality system realized in hardware instead of only in concept. This first virtual reality system creatively applied Head Mounted Display (HMD) technology to provide immersive simulation for the first time. Although the system shows drawback of over heaviness and inconvenience for the user, it provided some level of interactive functions than the simulator created by Morton Heilig. This first HMD system is named 'The Sword of Damocles' because of its weird appearance.[11]

In 1971, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) successfully invented the first prototype of a force-feedback system. [12]

In 1977, David Em creatively applied the virtual simulator to the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for astronomical usage, which was milestone in virtual reality applications. [13]

In 1988, a Cyberspace Project at Autodesk implemented VR on a personal computer for the first time, which allowed for stronger interactive functions and better images than simulator alone could perform.[14]

In 1989, Jaron Lanier first used the terminology "virtual reality" to refer to all the simulator creating unreal experiences similar to real-world experiences. Besides his great contribution in research fields, Lanier founded his company VPL Research, which focused on virtual reality applications in 1985. VPL Research has developed several successfully merchandised VR devices, including DataGlove (1985), which is the first merchandised virtual reality product.[15][16]

In 1992, Carolina Cruz-Neira, Daniel J. Sandin, and Thomas A. DeFanti invented CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment), a virtual reality and scientific visualization system that first used stereoscopic images on the walls of room instead of HMD. Such creative approach allows CAVE to perform far more superior images and convenience to users than any other prototypes using the HMD technology. [17]In the same year, Nicole Stenger created the first movie that is both immersive and interactive for the viewers.[18]

In 1995, Nintendo released its Virtual Boy console, which was the first video game console capable of displaying stereoscopic "3D" graphics. Considered as a form of virtual reality, the Virtual Boy console symbolled the start of application in the game industry. [19]

21st Century
After 40 years of development, virtual reality technology became mature enough to support a boom of commercialized products in the 21st century in many different fields (mostly in entertainment)
In 2010, Palmer Luckey designed a prototype of the Oculus Rift, which was able to provide a 90-degree field of view with low latency, and built-in haptic feedback.
In 2013, Valve adopted the Oculus prototype and used it in all their future headsets. In early 2014, Valve published their SteamSight prototype, which is equipped with the consumer headsets including separate 1K displays per eye, low persistence, positional tracking over a large area, and fresnel lenses.[20]
In 2021, virtual reality is first approved to be used in flight simulation training by the the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This indicates the start of pilot training with the support of virtual reality tools.

Future Forecasting
With the rapid development of virtual reality technology, it becomes a widely known by the general public and gradually enters people's daily life. Virtual reality is widely believed to be a promising and striving new technology in the future.[21]


As a revolutionary technology, virtual reality (VR) has a wide application in entertainment, professional training, medical treatment and communication.
Virtual reality will transform and improve a variety types of entertainments. In 1995, Nintendo released its Virtual Boy console, which was the first video game console capable of displaying stereoscopic "3D" graphics using virtual reality technology. In the last 20 years, the quality of images and interactions in VR game console get improved continuously, making VR game console a widely commercialized entertainment tool. According to Omdia research, game companies sold 12.5 million consumer VR headsets with a total sales value of more than 2 billion USD in 2021. The sales of VR game products is expected to keep growing in a high speed.[22] As the virtual reality technology becomes more and more mature, the VR game console will become increasingly immersive to the user and become more widely used by gamers.'
Professional Training
Virtual reality is also widely applied in professional training for professions with dangerous or important situations, such as pilot, astronauts and fire fighters. This is because VR technology is able to create situations that are either dangerous for trainees or rare in the real-world without harming the trainees even if them fail to pass the training in the virtual world. To illustrate, VR technology is able to provide spacecraft or space environment simulator to train astronauts. This will considerably lower the cost of astronauts training and make it easier.[23]

Medical Treatment
In the foreseeable future, virtual reality technology will become vital tools in medical treatment for a variety of mental diseases. Since the first appliction of virtual reality to treat phobia in 1998[24], virtual reality application expands to treatments in other mental diseases, including posttraumatic stress disorder, substance-related disorders, eating disorders, psychosis, and autism spectrum disorder. However, as a relatively new technology, the effect of virtual reality is debated: many scientist believe that there is no strong evidence to support the effectiveness of virtual reality in many mental disease except eating disorders. [25]It seems that it will take the next few years for scientists to figure out the effectiveness and the appropriate use of virtual reality in treating mental diseases.

Virtual reality will become an important tool for remote communication in the future. Compared to the current phone call or video communication, virtual reality will enable 3-D real-time communication in a virtual world for people at different locations. [26]Such 3-D real-time communication may allow physical contact between user, making the communication much more interactive and closer to face to face communication. From this perspective, the future application of virtual reality will significantly improve the communication in both professional and social environments.

Ethical Concern

Moral in the Virtual World
Though the experience the virtual world creates is unreal, whether unmoral behavior should be allowed in the virtual world is debated. Michael Cranford argued that there is a moral danger because VR creates a world with “abandonment of external constraints.” This means that there will not be any risk or consequences of people's behavior in virtual reality, and this may lead to less limitation to human behaviors. Without proper limitation to human behavior, it is likely that many people may perform unmorally and do harm to others in the virtual world.[27] As the popularization of virtual reality, unmoral behavior may be restricted in the future by government publishing related laws or policies.

Mental Health Risk
The exact mental health risk caused by heavy use of virtual reality is still uncertain due to the currently low application rate of virtual reality. However, according to many scientific experiment, heavy use of virtual reality already shows great possibility in leading to several significant mental health issue to virtual reality users.

According to many scientific studies, user has a high possibility of having 'Cybersickness', which describes the feelings of nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and bodily disorientation, after frequently exposing to virtual reality. Such 'Cybersickness' may lead considerably uncomfortable feelings to the users. Though such side effect may be minimized with the development of the virtual reality technology in the future, it will remain to be a huge health issue to virtual reality users in the next few years or even dozens of years.[28]

Beyond potential physical harm to users, virtual reality may lead to user's inability to readjust to the real world. This is because users always have a stronger control of the virtual reality so they will adjust the virtual reality to meet their satisfaction. With a more satisficing virtual reality, users may prefer to view the virtual reality as their 'true reality' and feel that the 'true reality' is unreal. As the virtual reality technology becomes increasingly developed, the world in virtual reality may become more realistic and attractive, leading to a higher potential to the disorder of inability to readjust to the real world.[29][30]
Virtual reality may also lead to depersonalization and derealization dissociative disorders by creating illusion of embodiment. [31] These effect may cause users to be separated by the society and cause significant negative effect to users daily life in the true reality.

Injuries Caused by Bodily Neglect
As the development of virtual reality to create increasingly 'real' world for the users, there is an increasing risk for users to neglect their current physical body conditions and real world environment due to virtual reality's immersive nature. Neglecting their body and environment may lead to great danger to the users. To illustrate, a user may punch a table in the real world at the same time that he is punching an enemy in the virtual world, thus leading to injuries or even broken bones. Since there have been numerous reports of severe illnesses and fatalities due to video gamers neglecting their own physical well-being, virtual reality is highly likely to cause even more injuries than video games that are not as immersive as video game in nature.[32] Such bodily neglect may even cause danger to other people since virtual reality users may be unaware of other people's existence in their surroundings and unintentionally hurt them.
Children Use of VR
Though virtual reality imposes some level of physical danger and mental threats to users, such as addictiveness and injuries caused by body neglect, adults may be able to avoid many of these issues by using VR carefully and abstinently. However, kids and infants has nearly zero resistance to these threats and dangers. Thus, kids have a much higher possibility and also a greater extent to suffer from these risks. Due to the foreseeable wide application of home-user VR in the future, it is nearly impossible to forbid kids from using VR. However, if the society simply set no restriction on kid using VR, a great number of tragedies is premised to occur, and the society will experience great loss. For this reason, the government should work closely with experts in VR and children safety to ensure that VR will not impose danger to young kids or infants in any form.
Privacy Issue
In the 21st century, internet privacy issues is considered one of the most heated ethical concerns. Compared to privacy issues on the internet, privacy issues related to virtual reality may be even more important due to virtual reality's capacity to collect much more private information about users than internet. To illustrate, while internet is only able to collect internet behavioral data of the users, virtual reality is even able to collect patterns of eye-movements, brain activities, motor responses, and reflexes, which together constitute a person’s distinct “kinematic fingerprint.

As Facebook changing its company name to Meta and investing heavily in virtual reality technology, researchers expects a combination of virtual reality and social media (VRSN), which will define a variety of distinct privacy issues. [33] VRSN companies may require users to use their real identity or identity directly connected to their social media account instead of allowing anonymous use as the traditional virtual reality technology. Such policy may indicates that VRSN companies may be able to extract both of your social privacy from your social media account and your mental privacy from the use of virtual reality. With the knowledge of both private information, VRSN companies may be able to infer much more information about an individual, and the misuse or leaking of these information and also inference may cause great harm to the individual.

Manipulation Power on Individual
Virtual reality and social media companies (VRSN) owns significant influence on individual due to its power to affect the virtual reality appears to an individual. [34]Since researches have already indicate that texts on social media can have great influence on an individual's behavior, virtual reality definitely will have a much greater influence or even enable VRSN companies to perform person manipulation because virtual reality is highly immersive nature and can be easily modified.[35] Intentional modification to virtual reality according to specific aims of influencing beliefs, emotions, and behavior may create manipulation power to every users on virtual reality, leading to rise of strong power that threats the entire society. Regulation on the modification rights must be designed rigorously to limit the potential harm to individual and society.


The development of virtual reality is much faster than expected and has already enable mass commercialization in the general public. In contrast, the legal system remains unprepared for the commercialization of virtual reality and issues related to it. The government has to set up an entire policy and law system to minimize ethical issues related to virtual reality, including privacy, manipulation power, mental health responsibility, and restriction on moral in the virtual world. It is a great challenge for the government since virtual reality is a completely new technology. In addition, the balance between users' freedom in the virtual world and the laws restriction is also hard to reach. Over-restrictive laws may deprive freedom and fun of virtual reality and hinder the development of the technology while laws regulating only few aspect of virtual reality may encourage unmoral behaviors and inappropriate applications. For this reason, the government should work closely with virtual reality and social science experts to study all potential outcomes of the laws before publishing them.
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