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Section 1: Overview and Objectives#

1.2 Introducing virtual reality#

Virtual reality has been defined in many different ways. It is generally agreed that the essence of virtual reality lies with computer-based three-dimensional environments. Often termed 'worlds', they represent real-world or conceptual environments that can be navigated through, interacted with and updated in real-time. The definition of virtual reality is explored in more detail in Section 2 of this Guide.

Virtual reality can be delivered using a variety of systems. The 'world' may be projected inside a 'cave' within which users can move around. Headsets and gloves may be worn so that users are immersed in a virtual world which they can move around and touch. The most widely used form of virtual reality in use today is desk-top virtual reality. In these systems virtual reality worlds run on users' desk-top computers and are displayed on a standard monitor and navigated using a mouse or 3-D space ball with a keyboard.

Desk-top virtual reality systems can be distributed easily via the World Wide Web or on CD and users need little skill to install or use them. Generally all that is needed to allow this type of virtual reality to run on a standard computer is a single piece of software in the form of a viewer. Desk-top virtual reality is both very accessible and widely used, and for these reasons will form the focus of this Guide.

Uses of virtual reality

There are many common applications for virtual reality. They fall into the main categories of training, education, simulation, visualisation, conceptual navigation, design and entertainment but there is much overlap between these categories:

  • Training applications include allowing users to practise a process repeatedly in a no-risk environment. For example, users might dig an archaeological site, trying out different strategies without the risk of destroying important evidence
  • Educational applications include virtual visits and simulations. For example, a virtual visit to a museum that is too far away to visit or does not exist in the real world. Historic battles may be simulated allowing users to see 'what would have happened if?'
  • Visualisation examples include an architect's design for a building or the reconstruction of ancient buildings from archaeological evidence. Such models also allow users to explore something too large or too small to explore in reality and can bring historical time-lines to life
  • Applications of virtual reality for conceptual navigation enable, for example, users of a library or archive to find the information they need at a logical or physical level
  • Virtual reality allows designs to be visualised and tested. For example, a design application might allow a choreographer to see a dance in action
  • Entertainment applications include virtual art galleries and games. Virtual reality may also be considered as an art form in its own right
  • Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) allow users to interact with each other in a virtual world allowing the development of virtual communities, thus adding a new dimension to virtual reality.

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