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Definition: virtual reality

A computer-generated reality that projects the user into a 3D space. Using a stereoscopic headset that provides a completely immersive experience, the virtual reality (VR) system is operated by the user's head and hand movements or a physical control unit, the latter commonly used with virtual reality games. In the early days of VR, data gloves tethered by wires to a computer were used to track hand gestures.

The very first virtual reality systems were created for pilot and astronaut training, employing a physical housing that resembles the inside of a cockpit. Extremely costly and still used, they provide a totally realistic experience that simulates taking off, flying and landing (see flight simulator).

Like Real Life
When people wear ordinary non-VR video goggles, turning their head changes nothing (see video headphones). However, just as in real life, when people move their head with a VR headset, the view changes. VR headsets are either entirely self-contained units or a device that holds the user's smartphone (see VR headset, Apple Vision Pro, Meta Quest, Samsung Gear VR, Daydream VR and Google Cardboard).

Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality
"Virtual" reality is an entirely generated environment, whereas "augmented" reality creates images or video in space in front of the user or off to the side (see augmented reality). See virtual reality locomotion, social VR, metaverse, 3D visualization, virtual world, head mounted display, 6DOF, cyberspace, VRML and Second Life.

VR at the Dentist
In the late 1990s, this VR system kept children entertained at the dentist. Using a game controller, this boy was manipulating the scenes. (Image courtesy of I-O Display Systems.)

Spatially Immersive Systems
In the early 1990s, Fakespace Systems' CAVE products were developed by the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois. These examples simulate a new train station (top) for observation and a Caterpillar bulldozer for training (below). The steering wheel on the left meets the real wheel on the right in virtual space. (Images courtesy of Mechdyne Corporation, www.mechdyne.com)

Virtual Reality in the 1950s
In 1957, Morton Heilig created the first fully immersive system. Not only did the Sensorama have 3D and stereo sound, it included smell, seat vibrations and wind to enhance the illusion. (Image courtesy of Minecraftpsyco.)