How Virtual Reality Works

Virtual Reality Development

A BOOM Display used by NASA to emulate space
A BOOM Display used by NASA to emulate space
Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation funded much of the research and development for virtual reality projects. The CIA contributed $80,000 in research money to Sutherland. Early applications mainly fell into the vehicle simulator category and were used in training exercises. Because the flight experiences in simulators were similar but not identical to real flights, the military, NASA, and airlines instituted policies that required pilots to have a significant lag time (at least one day) between a simulated flight and a real flight in case their real performance suffered.

For years, VR technology remained out of the public eye. Almost all development focused on vehicle simulations until the 1980s. Then, in 1984, a computer scientist named Michael McGreevy began to experiment with VR technology as a way to advance human-computer interface (HCI) designs. HCI still plays a big role in VR research, and moreover it lead to the media picking up on the idea of VR a few years later.

Jaron Lanier coined the term Virtual Reality in 1987. In the 1990s, the media latched on to the concept of virtual reality and ran with it. The resulting hype gave many people an unrealistic expectation of what virtual reality technologies could do. As the public realized that virtual reality was not yet as sophisticated as they had been lead to believe, interest waned. The term virtual reality began to fade away with the public’s expectations. Today, VE developers try not to exaggerate the capabilities or applications of VE systems, and they also tend to avoid the term virtual reality.

For more information on virtual reality and virtual environments, check out the links below.



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More Great Links


  • Beier, K. “Virtual Reality: A Short Introduction.” University of Michigan Virtual Reality Laboratory at the College of Engineering.
  • Briggs, John C. “The Promise of Virtual Reality.” The Futurist. 1996.
  • Brooks, Frederick. “Is There Any Real Virtue in Virtual Reality?” Presentation. 1998.
  • Brooks, Frederick. “What’s Real About Virtual Reality?” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications. 1999.
  • Carlson, Wayne. “A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation.” The Ohio State University. 2003.
  • ScienceDaily
  • Sipress, Alan. “Does Virtual Reality Need a Sheriff?” Washington Post. 2 June, 2007.
  • Steuer, Jonathan. “Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence.” Journal of Communications. Vol. 42, No. 2. 1992.
  • The Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments
  • Whitton, Mary C. “Making Virtual Environments Compelling.” Communications of the ACM. Vol. 46, No. 7. 2003.
  • Whitton, Mary C. Personal interview conducted June 19, 2007.