How Virtual Reality Works

Virtual Reality Applications

Using virtual therapy to treat a patient’s fear of flying.
Using virtual therapy to treat a patient’s fear of flying.
Photo courtesy of Virtually Better, Inc.


In the early 1990s, the public's exposure to virtual reality rarely went beyond a relatively primitive demonstration of a few blocky figures being chased around a chessboard by a crude pterodactyl. While the entertainment industry is still interested in virtual reality applications in games and theatre experiences, the really interesting uses for VR systems are in other fields.

Some architects create virtual models of their building plans so that people can walk through the structure before the foundation is even laid. Clients can move around exteriors and interiors and ask questions, or even suggest alterations to the design. Virtual models can give you a much more accurate idea of how moving through a building will feel than a miniature model.

Car companies have used VR technology to build virtual prototypes of new vehicles, testing them thoroughly before producing a single physical part. Designers can make alterations without having to scrap the entire model, as they often would with physical ones. The development process becomes more efficient and less expensive as a result.

Virtual environments are used in training programs for the military, the space program and even medical students. The military have long been supporters of VR technology and development. Training programs can include everything from vehicle simulations to squad combat. On the whole, VR systems are much safer and, in the long run, less expensive than alternative training methods. Soldiers who have gone through extensive VR training have proven to be as effective as those who trained under traditional conditions.

In medicine, staff can use virtual environments to train in everything from surgical procedures to diagnosing a patient. Surgeons have used virtual reality technology to not only train and educate, but also to perform surgery remotely by using robotic devices. The first robotic surgery was performed in 1998 at a hospital in Paris. The biggest challenge in using VR technology to perform robotic surgery is latency, since any delay in such a delicate procedure can feel unnatural to the surgeon. Such systems also need to provide finely-tuned sensory feedback to the surgeon.

Another medical use of VR technology is psyc­hological therapy. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University and Dr. Larry Hodges of the Georgia Institute of Technology pioneered the use of virtual environments in treating people with phobias and other psychological conditions. They use virtual environments as a form of exposure therapy, where a patient is exposed -- under controlled conditions -- to stimuli that cause him distress. The application has two big advantages over real exposure therapy: it is much more convenient and patients are more willing to try the therapy because they know it isn't the real world. Their research led to the founding of the company Virtually Better, which sells VR therapy systems to doctors in 14 countries.

In the next section, we'll look at some concerns and challenges with virtual reality technology.