Virtual reality (VR) describes an immersive experience to stimulate the senses of a user. Experiences are typically generated via computer graphical environments, such as the fantasy worlds one might find in video games. Also known as virtuality, these immersive environments can use computer screens or three-dimensional displays with sound enhancements. More complex systems rely on haptic, or force feedback, touch-sensitive systems and omnidirectional treadmills that allow users to walk around their virtual world. Used in numerous industries and technological applications, virtual reality environments are most often associated with flight simulators, military combat training, medical therapies, and rehabilitation techniques.
Like enclosed video games, virtual reality environments provide sensory stimulation in a controlled sensory environment. Using cues such as visual stimulation, the body often responds to simulated stimuli in the same way as their physical counterparts. Virtual reality environments duplicate real-world objects and visual actors, audio feedback, motion, and orientation mechanics, all synthesized to create the illusion of the external world.
They are also employed to assist in product design and manufacturing. Relying on computer-aided drafting (CAD) schematics, these environments help shape and develop prototypes and untested products. Rapid prototyping technologies such as stereolithography help translate these virtual elements into actual physical objects that can be tested.
Immersive virtual reality environments can also be employed in educational contexts. They may allow users to experience simulations and field trips from one location. With the addition of head-mounted audiovisual displays and tactile interfaces like wired gloves, VR offers access to otherwise dangerous or challenging environments. Kids can climb mountains or go deep-sea diving, or explore the ice caves of Antarctica without a permission slip from their parents. In other academic contexts, virtual reality environments can facilitate collaborations using telepresence, or VR interactivity, in laboratories and research facilities around the world.
Other virtual reality environments are designed to facilitate fear responses in phobia sufferers. Using behavioral and therapeutic techniques, users are exposed to conditions and objects of phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder. These methods treat anxieties and fears by therapeutically desensitizing minds with repeat exposure to the undesirable objects or situations. More complex virtual reality environments recreate objects in three dimensions, to allow users to get up close and personal to harmful stimuli without risk. The real reactions to virtual experiences also account for the popularity of leisure virtual reality worlds in computer gaming consoles and on the Web, crossing adventurers into the blurry realities of alternate times and personas.