Virtual Reality Technology

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Virtual Reality Technology

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021389

Publication Date: 2206

Report Type: TUTORIAL


The promise of an explosion in virtual reality (VR) technology has been
around for more than three decades. The public has been hearing about how
this interactive genre of entertainment is poised to burst into their
living rooms and change their lives since the 1980s when the first VR
models showed up in amusement parks. Unfortunately, that promise went
unfulfilled for many, many years. However, the situation is now rapidly
changing. For the first time, consumer-level virtual reality hardware
capable of providing a practical and compelling VR experience is on the
market, with new models regularly being unveiled by some of the largest
forces in the video game and technology industry. This new surge of head
mounted displays (HMDs) and the novel motion capture and tracking
technologies they bring with them show the greatest promise yet that
modern tech might finally make good on its decades old promise to
transport us to a virtual world.

Report Contents:

Description and History

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The Early Attempts

As a concept, virtual reality has existed in fiction from as early as the
late 19th and early 20th centuries, potentially even longer if a more
liberal definition of the term is applied. However, the world did not see
the first stirrings of what a modern person would recognize as VR tech
until 1968. This unit, largely thought of as the first virtual reality
head mounted display (HMD), was dubbed “The Sword of Damocles” due to its
massive size, which required it to be suspended over the wearer’s head
from a ceiling just to support its weight. This VR machine was created by
computer scientist Ivan Sutherland in collaboration with his
student Bob Sproull and was designed to display simple wireframe
images of rooms the user could explore.1 Although primitive by
today’s standards, the Sword introduced not only the concept of a head
mounted display but also combined the HMD with tracking the motion of the
user’s head to make the movements of the on-screen images mirror the
user’s motions in the virtual world. 2

Despite the strong resemblance Sutherland’s work bears to modern VR, it
wasn’t until the 1980s that the term “virtual reality” truly entered the
public vernacular. While developments had been ongoing since the Sword of
Damocles, the next true evangelist for VR tech, and the man widely
believed to have popularized the term “virtual reality,” was Jaron Lanier.
A former employee of the Atari video game company, Lanier left the firm to
found VPL Research, one of the first commercial entities dedicated to
exploring virtual reality as a practical technology.3 The
company remained in existence throughout the 1980s but filed for
bankruptcy in 1990 and was later acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999.4
While the name VPL Research may not exactly be a household one, it was the
first seller of VR tech to rely on the “goggles and gloves” interface,
reinforcing the combination of a HMD and some form of handheld unit as
being the primary method of interacting with virtual worlds.

The 1990s would see the first wave of commercially available VR units.
Designed primarily for use in amusement parks and major arcades, these
machines were best represented by the “Virtuality” line of products.
Virtuality units came in sit-down and stand-up varieties and allowed the
user to move through a virtual space via HMD and a hand-held joystick.
Virtuality machines are notable for several reasons, including having the
first networked multi-player support found in any VR tech as well as
presenting their virtual spaces with nearly no perceptible lag time. The
makers of the Virtuality machines brought with them a promise for the
expansion of VR technology into the education and research fields, with
plans for units tailored to medical research and other areas of
technological development. Although these never truly materialized, the
impact of Virtuality’s amusement park presence was the first time many
modern adults were exposed to VR tech and given a taste of what it could

Visiting virtual worlds while at an amusement park or mega-arcade is all
well and good, but the true dream of virtual reality enthusiasts has
always been an in-home unit capable of providing them with full immersion
in a virtual world. Although it can hardly be said to have accomplished
the task, one of the first units to even attempt this feat was Nintendo’s
Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, this notorious failure was plagued by its
single-color (red) display, lack of compelling games, and stationary
goggle unit that had to be used perched on its stand and placed on a
table. The damage done to Nintendo’s bottom line by the failure of the
unit may not have been its worst crime, as the genre of virtual reality
technology as a whole was sent reeling from its demise. The remainder of
the 1990s was a wasteland for new development, with little or no
improvement throughout the early 2000s.

The Birth of Modern VR

At the rate that the modern VR technology market is diversifying, it
might be easy to forget that the current upswing in interest for the
technology began when a relatively unknown company introduced a unit known
as the Oculus Rift. This HMD, which spent several years in a
highly-publicized development phase, was created by OculusVR, a company
founded by Palmer Lucky, a long-time proponent of HMD technology, in
collaboration with co-founders Brendan Iribe, Michael Antonov, Jack
McCauley, Nate Mitchell, and Andrew Scott Reisse. While all of these
men had a hand in the launch of Oculus, one of the driving forces behind
the company didn’t join until after its creation. John Carmack, a video
game designer and a pioneer of the first-person shooter genre, became
interested in the company very early on and formed an affiliation with
OculusVR in 2012. Lucky and Carmack would debut their first collaboration,
a VR edition of Carmack’s Doom 3 game, at the 2012 Electronics
Entertainment Expo (E3).6 From there the duo would go on to
develop the OculusRift DK1 (Developer’s Kit 1), followed by several
tweaked iterations and, eventually, the OculusRift DK2. Although these
were all important milestones, the event that would mark a paradigm shift
for OculusVR, and the one that would, arguably, fire the starting pistol
for the consumer VR race, came in March 2014 when it was announced that
Facebook was buying OculusVR for $2 billion.7 Although it
seemed like an odd fit to many analysts, the mere fact that Facebook, one
of the leading tech companies of the time, was willing to sink $2 billion
into a company that wasn’t even two years old gave VR a level of
legitimacy that it had not know since the boom of the early 1990s.

Following Facebook’s acquisition, the likes of Samsung, HTC, Valve
Software, Sony, and others suddenly had a renewed interest in joining the
field of virtual reality hardware and software. This new boom is still in
its relative infancy, with new models from Oculus and Valve currently
representing some of the best the market has to offer. However, the rabid
public desire for these still relatively pricey units, as well as the
ever-expanding number of companies committed to making VR hardware and
content, point towards a trend that has more than enough momentum to
finally live up to the promise of truly immersive consumer-level VR

Note: While Oculus still has strong name recognition, in 2021,
Facebook/Meta rebranded Oculus as Meta.


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On a grand scale, the applications of virtual reality technology are
almost as limitless as those of actual reality – potentially even more so.
The reason for this is derived from the heart of VR technology’s ultimate
goal: Providing the user with “presence” and “immersion.” These two terms
are thrown around a lot in the industry and their meaning is often lost in
the shuffle. Essentially, presence and immersion combine to refer to the
act of tricking the user’s brain into believing that they are within that
virtual world. That is not to say that the user will consciously think
they have actually been transported into a computer simulation, but,
rather, that their mind has been fully saturated with enough
natural-seeming sensory input from the VR hardware and software to
replicate all of the earmarks of a true reality. Similar to willfully
suspending the reader’s disbelief in a work of fiction, the accomplishment
of “presence” allows for the kind of experience that simply can’t be
matched by sitting in front of a computer monitor or TV with a controller
in hand. Combined with the near-omnipotence a programmer can have within a
digital world, this opens the possibility of placing people in both
real-life situations and “realities” that simply could not exist in this
universe. Given this freedom, it’s incredibly easy to see how interested
the entertainment and video game industries would be in the technology.
However, its potential does not stop there but rather extends into many
other areas of research and industry, with applications more wide-ranging
and divergent than nearly any other nascent technology. Here are just a
few examples of the numerous roads down which VR technology can take a

  • Video Games – The original and most well-known use
    to which virtual reality technology has been put. This genre refers to
    the placement of the user within a game world, with their viewpoint
    typically replicating the first-person vision of a character in the
    game. This application is particularly well suited to first-person
    shooter games such as the popular “Call of Duty” series as well as to
    any form of piloted games including racing and flight simulators, or
    more fantastical genres like space simulators. Setups have even been
    designed with peripheral hardware that can make humans feel like they
    are flying like a bird, complete with movement controlled by flapping
    their arms and motion-synced wind blowing through their hair.8
  • Interactive Films – Closely related to the use of VR
    in video games, interactive films essentially allow a person to enter a
    movie. Whether living as a character within the film or simply as an
    unseen observer, the user is able to explore the available space and
    view the goings-on from any angle of their choosing. This puts the
    viewer in the director’s seat, giving them a level of control and
    presence that even the best Hollywood has to offer cannot match.
    Although this idea might seem like it could take years to come to
    fruition, several VR experiences have already debuted at locales as
    prestigious as the Sundance Film Festival, often to extremely positive
  • Training – While generally geared towards being used
    for fun up to this point in its history, VR is just as capable at
    allowing people to get work done. This application is particularly
    useful for industries in which a new worker may find herself placed in
    dangerous situations. Rather than a trainee firefighter being put into a
    real burning building, albeit in a controlled training scenario, they
    could instead start out with a virtual reality fire. This removes even
    the moderate danger posed by traditional training scenarios and could,
    arguably, be just as effective. Similarly, users tasked with jobs that
    require them to operate very expensive or delicate machinery could, with
    no financial risk, gain hours and hours of near-real on-the-job
    experience. It must be said that this is already occurring to some
    degree with the majority of this type of application having been
    realized within the aviation industry. Pilots have been training on
    simulators for decades, but the technology has yet to reach the many,
    many other industries where it could also prove beneficial.
  • Remote Control – Rather than helping someone learn
    how to get work done, this scenario points to the usage of VR technology
    in actually completing the work itself. The greatest benefit of this use
    case can be found in piloting craft or probes in situations where it is
    dangerous or impossible for a human being to directly interact. One of
    the best examples of VR being used for remote control can be found as
    part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission. In 1991, Antonio Medina
    proposed a system that would allow a pilot to remotely drive the Mars
    Rover from a seat on Earth. This system would compensate for the
    transmission delays and would use a practice he dubbed
    “Computer-Simulated Teleoperation.”10 Although it may not
    have used the head-mounted displays that are ubiquitous to VR now, its
    potential would only have been enhanced by the addition of such
    immersive hardware.
  • Therapy – One of the few fields that is already
    heartily adopting VR tech as part of its path forward is psychiatric
    therapy. The technology has been successfully leveraged in treating
    maladies as varied as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders
    (formerly known as phobias), and even as treatment for addictions. In
    each case, the VR tech in use provides access to an experience for the
    patient that would be ill-advised or harmful for him or her to
    experience in real life.11 One example would be treating an
    anxiety disorder about heights by loading the patient into a VR program
    where they appear to be on a precipice. This kind of exposure therapy
    has been in use for decades, but, until recently, had generally required
    patients to face their fears without any of the buffers a virtualized
    version of the world can provide.

As previously stated, these scenarios are only a small taste of the many
different applications offered by the ability to replicate the real world
or create an entirely new one in which a person, albeit for a short time,
can live, work, train, heal, or play in ways that the laws of reality
would never allow.

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Having explored the history that brought VR to its current state and
having reflected on what it is capable of doing for the human race, it’s
time to take a grounded look at exactly where VR technology is headed.

The VR Market

According to Grand View Research, the global virtual reality market reached
$21.83 billion in 2021, and is expected to expand at a compound annual
growth rate (CAGR) of 15.0 percent from 2022 to 2030.

Looking ahead, the commercial segment, which accounted for more than 50
percent of 2021 revenue, is expected to continue its market dominance
until the end of the decade. Growth factors include:

  • The increasing use of VR headsets in commercial settings, including
    real estate, vehicle showrooms, and retail stores.
  • The rising adoption of VR-enabled smartphones, with many businesses
    using VR to introduce new products to the general public.

The healthcare segment offers opportunities, with companies such as
ImmersiveTouch and Osso VR providing VR solutions to train medical
students and surgeons.

The consumer segment will see increased growth due to demand in the
gaming and entertainment industries. Figure 1 shows the popular Meta Quest
2 VR headset.

Finally, the enterprise segment will employ VR for organizational
training, and to enhance communication and collaboration.12

Figure 1. Popular Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest 2 VR Headset

Figure 1. Popular Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest 2 VR Headset

Source: Wikimedia Commons

VR – AR – MR

While virtual reality is the most widely known “reality technology,” it
shares a common space with two other reality enhancers: “Augmented
reality” and, more recently, “mixed reality.”

Augmented reality (AR) involves the superimposition of graphics, audio,
video, and other “sensory enhancements” over a real-world environment, in
real time, thus presenting an enhanced or “augmented” view of that
environment. At least currently, AR is more accessible than VR since its
primary instrumentation is special glasses, rather than head-mounted

A relatively new entrant in the reality market, mixed reality (MR)
“brings together real world and digital elements. In mixed reality, you
interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and
environments, using next-generation sensing and imaging technologies.
Mixed reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around
you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands –
all without ever removing your headset. It provides the ability to have
one foot (or hand) in the real world, and the other in an imaginary place,
breaking down basic concepts between real and imaginary, offering an
experience that can change the way you game and work today.”13

The combination of virtual reality and augmented reality is foundational
to current concepts of the metaverse, leading to speculation that some
next-generation reality applications will expand on that mixture by
incorporating virtual, augmented, and mixed reality.

The Metaverse Movement

In October 2021, Facebook changed its name to Meta Platforms, Inc.,
reflecting the intention of co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to
transition his social media mega platform to a “metaverse company.” The
metaverse, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a highly immersive virtual
world where people gather to socialize, play, and work.” Zuckerberg and others will help drive metaverse adoption and, thus, help
propel VR and AR acceptance and innovation.

In addition, the metaverse is emerging as an essential enterprise tool.
For example, the metaverse, as manifested through Microsoft’s Azure
Digital Twins technology, is proving an invaluable instrument for business
process reengineering, improving business productivity, reducing errors,
lowering costs, and enhancing customer experiences.

Whether for work or play, metaverse applications will influence the
direction of VR and AR R&D.

Easy VR Development

According to software development firm Program-Ace, “It has become
incredibly easy for businesses to create VR solutions, and should get even
easier…. For one thing, the number of development companies is
multiplying year by year, so partnering with a top VR company for app
design is quite [easy] and prices can be pretty low. Additionally, the
developers themselves can work faster and better because the premiere
tools they use (Unity and Unreal engines) are rolling out key new features
for VR. For instance, Unreal Engine 5 has rolled out support for OpenXR, a
standard for developing applications for multiple VR platforms
simultaneously. Thus, a company will be able to use various headsets with
the same software solution.”14

Virtual Reality Challenges

Notwithstanding the promise of virtual reality, some challenges remain:

  • The price of VR headsets is still too high for everyday consumers.
  • Consumer demand, save for dedicated gamers, is still too low.
  • Health concerns – temporary side-effects such as blurred vision,
    nausea, headache, and queasiness – have not been seriously (or, at
    least, persuasively) addressed.15

Future Virtual Reality

Program-Ace predicts that in ten to 15 years, perhaps longer, virtual
reality technology may enable:

  • Full-body motion tracking – Useful, in particular, for safety
  • Immersive movies – “People will be able to get the
    entertainment they want right in front of their eyes without the need to
    go anywhere or invest in a giant screen for their home.”
  • Smart personal assistants – “These assistants will take on a
    [human-like] form. If people wear VR glasses, these helpers could
    accompany them through their daily tasks and activities.”
  • Playpens for physical activity – “One of the current limiting
    factors of VR is that apps must be designed for very careful and limited
    user movement. However, ten years from now, everyone could have a playpen
    where they use VR and also physically move around – run, crouch, jump,
    etc. without any risk to their health.”16


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At this point, it is undeniable that VR technology is at a turning point
in its history. We are nowhere near having something like Star Trek‘s
Holodeck, but we are definitely making greater strides in this area of
development than have been made in decades. The involvement of the R&D
departments and the checkbooks of the companies mentioned above only
insures that this trend will continue to expand. New entrants in the
market are appearing at a rate not seen since the initial flourishing of

But just as many scoffed at the necessity of a smartphone during that
time, many today are dubious of the entertainment and commercial value of
VR technology. However, nothing outside of an amusement park ride can
offer the average consumer anything like the thrills, scares, and fun made
possible by even the simplest VR entertainment available. It may have
ebbed and flowed over the decades since its inception, but it is hard to
imagine a world in which the public ever again puts away its interest in
virtual reality.

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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information
Services. He tracks and writes about enterprise software and the IT
services sector, as well as telecommunications and data networking.

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