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Section 2: Virtual Reality: History, Philosophy and Theory#

This chapter presents a background to the technologies which have become known as Virtual Reality (VR). It begins with a discussion of what VR actually is, taking a brief look at the term itself and the origins of the technology, then gives an outline of VR's main components and attributes and describes its breadth of use. The chapter then explores theoretical and philosophical aspects that may be taken into consideration by developers of VR applications, in particular the constant necessity to bear in mind the needs, wants and perspectives of the intended user.

2.1 What is virtual reality?#

Broadly, virtual reality (VR) is the label given to a range of computer-based approaches to the visualisation of concepts, objects or spaces in three or more dimensions. Although the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred, these approaches tend to differ from other three-dimensional visualisations, such as the output by Computer Aided Design (CAD) packages and Geographic Information Systems, in that the experience is interactive. The user of VR is often able to move around within the three-dimensional space and may be able to interact with objects found there.

There are many different ways of interpreting the term virtual reality. It can be seen as a technology that enables interaction with 'three-dimensional databases' or as a way of 'integrating man with information' (Stone 1998; Warwick et al. 1993). This idea of information being at the core of VR is supported by those who promote VR as a method of transferring knowledge or of turning information into knowledge, for example about a route, area or other virtual space (Witmer et al. 1996; Machover and Tice 1994). The most straightforward description of VR is perhaps the military notion of synthetic environments.

The definition of the term VR itself is unimportant, except when it promotes unhelpful expectations in the mind of a potential user. For example, the media-hyped image of VR is as surreal, artificial worlds into which participants are immersed via various futuristic gadgets. Putting this image aside, VR is rapidly developing into a practical and powerful imaging tool for a wide variety of applications. Consequently, when developing VR projects it may be wise to avoid definitions and concentrate on what it is that the technology can do.

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