Virtual Reailty
UNESCO Arts, Science & Technology

An Introduction to Virtual Reality

What is virtual reality (VR)?

Some people use the term to describe the abstract space created by the Internet and other networked computer technologies. More specifically, however, VR refers to:

  • interactive
  • three-dimensional (3D)
  • computer graphics.

The “simulation” created by these computer graphics allows users to feel as if they are “immersed” in the environment, rather than just looking at a computer screen. This is because users see 3D worlds that respond to their physical movement. Users can feel as is they are “flying,” but can also seemingly pick up graphical objects, and respond to artificially intelligent characters. This is accomplished through hardware such as stereoscopic eyepieces (head-mounted displays), data gloves, and 3D projection systems, like the CAVE.

It can be argued that humans have a longstanding urge to create believable, otherworldly environments. These may include prehistorical cave paintings, rituals, magic, and theatre to more recent 3D film and Disney-like entertainment environments. In this century, scientists and researchers have similarly tried to create artificial environments that recreate the cockpit of a fighter plane or heart surgery. By creating these environments, humans can learn how to fly or how to perform delicate surgeries without the risk of harming others.

The fundamental purpose of a virtual reality system is to enable a user to feel “immersed” and “present” within a simulation. The simulation is no mere model, but a 3D, stereoscopic space of computer graphics that can respond to the user's actions. VR enables users to become aware of their sensory-motor facilities and their sense of self. For example, VR is used for treating psychological problems, such as a fear of spiders, heights, or flying in airplanes. That is because users with phobias can confront their fears in an artificial environment that seems partially real, and responds “as if” it were real. The end results of virtual reality is a human-computer interface that allows a user to take advantage of natural human abilities when interacting with an environment other than the direct surroundings. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to produce a transparent link from human to machine, a user interface through which information is passed so naturally between user and environment that the user achieves a complete sense of presence within the computed environment.

Philosophically, virtual reality raises questions about the differences between artificial and real physical space. How do we verify reality? What is the difference between reality and technologically-constructed worlds? To what extent do they overlap? Critical theory would suggest that the physical world is as much a construction of mind (for example, the role of gender in perception) as the world constructed from VR cues. The history of the arts would further suggest that communication is not simply just a sending of sensual cues as many engineers would like to imagine. Images are not that interchangeable from medium to medium to the same affect. An artist is practiced in how subtleties and nuances within a given medium may achieve a richer sense of presence than one created by someone who lacks this specific type of knowledge.

Artists are increasingly interested in the issue of embodiment. Do people want to inhabit other worlds in order to escape their bodies or to reinhabit them? Can VR change a user's sense of self or identity? These questions become more critical as the richness of computable information increases and the ability to act at a distance is augmented through expanding forms of new technologies.