What is VR? Virtual reality, explained.  

Virtual reality (VR) offers the possibility of moving through an entirely imagined space, an artificial environment that exists in images but not in real life. Not so long ago, VR was familiar mostly as a plot device in sci-fi films such as The Matrix or Ready Player One  now, however, it is an increasingly established real-world technology with applications ranging from gaming and entertainment to medicine and the military. 


The desire to create and experience a virtual reality has roots older than the Keanu Reeves franchise. The concept is arguably at least as old as photography, even if the term “virtual reality” was created more recently. Soon after the invention of the camera, stereoscopes were used to create the illusion of three dimensions using only two still images. Another milestone in the history of VR experiences was the Sensorama, invented by Morton Heilig in 1962, which combined wraparound projections and artificial wind and odors, released at key moments, to increase the authenticity of the experience (the original experience consisted of a bike ride through Brooklyn, New York). 


These days, virtual reality experiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Engineers and programmers are creating life-like experiences that respond to every physical motion of participants as they travel through imaginary worlds without leaving their sitting rooms. VR is no longer a novelty but an innovative tool in all kinds of professional applications. 


credit: Artwork by Giovanni Nakpil.

What is virtual reality?

A VR experience consists of entering a computer-generated simulation, with the equipment providing an essential role. A VR headset supplies the visual and audible information about the world the participant is exploring, while myriad sensors and technologies translate the person’s movements into the virtual world.


The imagery of virtual reality may be constructed from photographs or film of real places or it can be entirely computer generated — CGI VR. Between these two options, VR allows people to explore just about any world that can be imagined, from the streets of a foreign city to the surface of a distant, fictional planet. 

Virtual reality vs. augmented reality.

It’s important to remember one thing that virtual reality is not — and that’s augmented reality (AR). Despite the similar names, AR does not offer participants a chance to explore an entirely digital reality; rather, it layers additional content onto the real world in front of them. 


With AR apps, you can hold your phone’s camera up to the scene in front of you and they will supplement the existing scene before you. For example, some AR apps will provide additional information on something nearby — such as a plant or a product — when you hold your phone in front of it. AR also includes apps that insert, say, a cartoon character into the scene you are looking at through your phone; this is true of the popular AR game Pokémon GO.

Virtual reality vs. mixed reality.

VR and AR converge in mixed reality. Researchers Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino coined the term in 1994 to describe the continuum between totally real and totally virtual environements. These days, mixed reality describes environments in which real and virtual subjects and objects interact in real time — and in which the user can interact with both real and virtual components.

The most essential piece of VR equipment is the headset, also known as the head-mounted display (HMD), which is essentially a set of oversized wraparound goggles that provides the visual and audio information about the artificial world that VR participants are exploring. 


Some notable examples of headsets include the Oculus Quest 2 by Facebook. This is one of the more affordable headsets and a popular choice among gamers. Other options on the market include the HP Reverb G2, the HTC VIVE Cosmos, Sony Playstation VR or Valve Index.


Popular applications of VR.

Games may be the first use that comes to mind when you think about VR, specifically those produced for the Sony PlayStation or by Oculus. These VR games run the gamut, drawing inspiration from blockbuster films, historical settings such as medieval Europe or Prohibition-era Chicago, arcade games and more.

VR has a cinematic application as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has led many theatrical directors to explore the opportunities that VR provides as a means of continuing to produce dramatic works even as theatres are shuttered, while also taking advantage of the format’s unusual possibilities that allow audiences to become characters within a story or to choose from multiple potential endings.

Fine arts and design

In 2020, Deutsche Kreditbank in cooperation with Contemporary Arts Alliance Berlin launched a virtual reality arts prize. For artists including Marina Abramović, Laurie Anderson and Anish Kapoor, VR offered an exciting new way of engaging with audiences even before 2020. For Denise Markonish, curator at MASS MoCA, artists’ adoption of VR is an interesting evolution from its earlier use by museums as a didactic tool. “We’ve begun to consider the medium as a means in itself to create original and often surreal environments born of an artist’s imagination,” Markonish told Robb Report


VR is  also starting to be used in design workflows for a more immersive experience when creating digital content in 3D. VR sculpting software allows users to model 3D assets using motions that reproduce real-life sculpting much more closely than has previously been possible on desktop apps. Adobe Substance 3D Modeler is one such example of a VR modelling app that notably also provides the possibility of modelling on desktop, according to each artist’s preferences.


credit: Artwork by Giovanni Nakpil.

Industrial designers exercise creativity and resourcefulness to design everyday products they hope will be widely used — but to do so, they must be highly collaborative. The profession commonly involves working as part of large teams made up of strategists, engineers, user interface (UI) designers, user experience (UX) designers, project managers, branding experts, graphic designers and manufacturers. This multi-disciplinary approach allows industrial designers to fully understand a problem and craft a skilful solution that responds to the specific needs of a user. Some of the most famous industrial design agencies include IDEO, Frog and Teague.

By creating the possibility of entering a structure and experiencing its spaces before ground is broken, VR has revolutionised the architecture industry. Whereas architects used to communicate their vision for a building via floor plans, scale models and renderings, VR allows them to walk their clients through a conceptual space. VR experiences offer the opportunity to wander through a building and even move pieces of furniture and turn lights on and off. And while clients might previously have had to travel long distances to see a 3D model, anyone with a headset and a “key” to the virtual building — that is, access to an app and the project — can experience the site virtually. 

Other technical applications include:


One of the most exciting areas for the future of VR is the world of medicine. This technology can be of enormous benefit in areas such as the study of human anatomy or the training of first responders when confronted with major crises. Situations that would be difficult or costly to set up in real life can be presented with relative ease in a virtual setting. Similarly, virtual programmes can offer doctors a chance to improve their empathy, giving them the opportunity to experience for themselves the challenges facing elderly or physically challenged patients, for example. A virtual reality visit to a Caribbean beach has even been found to calm patients’ anxiety before surgery.


Just as virtual surgery can prepare doctors for the real thing, flight simulators use virtual reality technology to give pilots essential practice before they fly a real jet. While flight simulators are popular VR games, more sophisticated simulators are essential learning tools. Many studies indicate that the memories of all the steps required to get a plane off the ground and to its destination are better retained when they are actually physically performed rather than simply studied in the abstract. 

The military

Real-life military training exercises will most likely continue to be an essential part of preparing troops, though having soldiers play the part of enemy combatants and building mock environments is time-consuming and expensive. Virtual reality allows soldiers to wander an unfamiliar location, face multiple threats and practice how they would handle encounters with both everyday citizens and potentially hostile adversaries.