Virtual Reality Devices

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Several models of virtual reality devices as of 2015

List of Virtual Reality Devices:

Virtual Reality Devices are a type of Wearable devices that are worn on the head and display information directly into user's eyes through one or more electronic displays present in the device. Together with Smartglasses and Smart Contact Lenses they create the Head Mounted Displays category. The virtual reality feeling is achieved by splitting the image, or using two displays, of the displayed information in such a way, that a stereoscopic view is created. This creates the feeling of depth in what the user sees and strengthens the immersion of the virtual reality. Additionally, other means of increasing the immersion are often present. These can include sensors to register the position and tilt of the device, which can be then carried over to the virtual reality, headphones to play sound and or music, or eye- and hands-tracking technologies.

Unlike Smartglasses, Virtual Reality Devices are fully enclosed and, with the exception of some hybrid devices combining both, they are not see-through and thus do not combine the actual and virtual realities together. The reality is not altered, but it is completely blocked out instead.

Historical overview

First experiments with devices, that we could call virtual reality devices, begun in the first half of the 20th century. American film-maker and inventor Morton L. Heilig, in pursuing his goal of construction the ultimate Experience Theatre, constructed multimedia device he called The Sensorama.[1] It was a mechanical device capable of displaying a stereoscopic 3D image, playing stereo sound and tilting the user sitting in front of it in dependence with what what happening on the screen. It was also equipped with an aroma dispenser to convey smells of the environment being displayed. Unfortunately, Heilig did not manage to secure funding for his project and The Sensorama remained a prototype only.

The Sword of Damocles device with its mechanical head tracking sensors in place.

While certainly a device capable of virtual reality, The Sensorama was purely mechanical in nature. The true virtual reality machine, one that displays a computer-generated environment, was called The Sword of Damocles.[2] The name was fitting, because the device was quite bulky and had to be attached to a mechanical arm on the ceiling. It was constructed by a computer scientist and computer graphics pioneer Ivan E. Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull in 1968. At that time, they both worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the experiments with their Head Mounted Display are believed to be the first of the kind. The displayed graphics comprised of simple wire-frame rooms and offered mechanical head tracking.

MIT continued leading the VR research and in 1977 introduced the ARPA funded multimedia system Aspen Movie Map. Essentially an interactive video recorded with four car-mounted cameras, the resulting virtual environment of the Aspen city in Colorado could be navigated in a way similar to Google Street View today. The user could choose an arbitrary path through the virtual city and because Aspen was filmed twice, early fall and winter, the viewer was able to change the season on demand.

The term virtual reality become widespread starting in the 1980 with the computer scientist Jaron Zepel Lanier Lanierthe and the creation of the VPL Research company which was among the first to develop and also sell virtual reality products. Among the products, the most notable are The Data Glove, a gestural interface device worn on one's hand that would translate the movements of the hand and individual fingers into the virtual environment. The company's second notable product was The EyePhone, a Head Mounted Display capable of head-tracking.

In 1990 and onward, Virtual Reality is advancing faster together with computer technology. The previously expensive and complicated technical solutions are becoming cheaper and possible due to the evolution in computer graphics and performance. VR is no longer confined to military or enterprise applications, it starts expanding into the entertainment industry as well. In 1991, Sega Holdings Co. announces Sega VR, rather unsuccessful head-tracking VR device for arcades. Sega cancelled the development of the home version and took off the arcade models, saying the virtual reality is too real and the users can injure themselves. Dues to the graphical limitations this is highly unlikely, the true reason for the withdrawal was most likely the induced headaches and motion sickness.[3] A similar device, The Virtual Boy by Nintendo Co., entered the marked in 1995. It was marketed as the first portable video console capable of virtual reality. Nintendo anticipated to a great amount of devices but the Virtual Boy was a failure. The marketing campaign was poorly handled and reviews criticised the discomfort the device caused (bad ergonomics, headaches, motion sickness) and wondered about its longevity. The device lacked any head-tracking features which resulted in poor immersion and only a passive 3D experience was achieved. The device did no sell very well and was quietly discontinued in 1996.

The development of VR continued, but only in the of enterprise applications. In 2014, Palmer Luckey introduced the Oculus Rift VR headset. The entrance of Oculus Rift, and other devices that followed, mark a new era in the evolution of virtual reality. The now affordable hardware allows for great performance and thus immersion while the resulting device is still cheap enough a general consumer can afford to buy it. Seeing the success of Oculus, other companies quickly followed with their solutions.

At CES in January 2016, Oculus and HTC unveiled consumer-ready versions of their VR headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both companies also announced their release dates. The same month, Google's maternal corporation Alphabet establishes virtual reality computing division.[4]

Summary of technical aspects

A virtual reality device is a type of a Head Mounted Display that is fully enclosed and only displays a computer-generated image. This is achieved by a LED display, or similar, technology. The device is able to display stereoscopic images and thus achieving the illusion of depth. This is managed by using either two separate displays, one for each eye, or by splitting the image in two. Because of this, the image has to be essentially generated twice. With the need of high resolution too, this is a significant performance requirement and also the reason there haven't been affordable consumer application up until the 2015.

The display is combined with optics that help the eyes to focus on a display that is very close and would otherwise be blurry when looked at from such a short distance. Optical techniques also help with the narrow field of view, that has to be considerably big to not cause discomfort to the user (Humans have a field of view up to 180 degrees) and to enhance the immersion factor.

With the exception of smartphone holders, VR devices has to be connected to a computer, because the hardware required to create VR image of suitable quality is still too bulky to fit into a head-mounted unit. Thanks to this, the device needs to be connected to the computer, either via cabling or wirelessly.

Other features include some form of gaze and position tracking. Some of the headsets also feature headphones.



The gamification of the education process is already taking place in the form of computers being introduced into schools. This can be further expanded with the introduction of the VR devices, that could act as a great way to familiarize the students with the taught topic more intimately and interactively. For example, the teacher and the students can undertake a virtual voyage inside the human body during the biology class, or they can travel through time during the history class. In all these and similar instances, the immersion the VR devices can achieve, can help students to better remember the material they are being taught. These applications are currently not used, or are only being experimented with. But we may seen a rise in VR baing used in schools with the more affordable devices coming to the market.


Similarly to the above, VR devices can be used to train professionals, much like pilots already use simulated environment to learn how to control an airplane. Virtual reality can be employed anywhere where the training would be too risky or expensive. As opposed to the raining in the real world, a simulated environment offers total control and it also allows shorter time between training sessions. These advantages allow VR to be successfully deployed in the military[5], to train doctors in complicated surgeries[6] or to train fire engine drivers[7].


William Ford, USC Institute for Creative Technologies' first virtual human and one of the personas of The SimCoach project.

Applications in therapy closely resembles those in the medical field. But as opposed to training doctors for their duties, virtual therapy is aimed at the patients. Virtual reality can enhance the traditional interviews that happen in the assessment phase of the therapy to help patients with anxiety to actually undertake the interview. Instead of a real therapist, the patient can talk to a virtual avatar in a controlled and comfortable virtual environment, which could be done from the patient's home as well. This may be the way for hesitant patients to overcome the resistance to seek care.

The ability to absolutely control the virtual environment, thus giving the therapists an affordable and effective way to create scenarios tailored to individual patients, is used in subsequent therapy as well. There already exist applications to treat veterans suffering from PTSD[8], or to rehabilitate sex offenders,[9] strengthen stress resilience in patients with anxiety, or to help those who suffered from traumatic brain injuries to regain their cognitive functions.


Entertainment is perhaps the biggest field for virtual reality applications yet. But it is only now when these devices are becoming affordable to be deployed in the consumer sector, that we will see the raise in the entertainment applications. The new generation of VR headset, that was started by the success of Oculus Rift, is already being experimented with by video game developers. With some developer studios being focused solely on VR.[10]

Other applications

Virtual reality can be used in a number of other applications. Urban planners may want to use VR to showcase their work, offering virtual tours through buildings and cities that exist only as plans.[11] Archaeologists could use virtual reality to show how an archaeological site looked like in the past. And finally, artists can find a whole new dimension to express themselves in virtual reality. Other forms of artistic or scientific visualisations are also very likely to be used.

A scene from the Waves of Grace short film by showing the life in Ebola struck Liberia.

Virtual reality can be a tremendous tool for those who wish to aim at a user's empathy. It is already used by non-profit organisations for their promotions. For example the Clinton Global Initiative[12] released a VR video starring former USA president Bill Clinton about their work in East Africa.[13] The immense effect the virtual reality can have on human empathy is utilized by other institutions too. United Nation created several short VR stories like the film Waves of Grace about Liberia recovering from the Ebola epidemic.[14] The charity data show that one in six people who watched such films donated which is double the usual rate.[15] These can be used to greatly influence the opinions and decision of those who may otherwise not be able to get the first-hand experience of these often remote events.[16][17] Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University is researching the effect virtual reality can have on empathy and how it can change a viewer's opinion on environmental, societal or economical issues.


Relevant issues


Immersive virtual environment may become almost indistinguishable from reality. This is beneficial if virtual reality is used for training purposes, because the experience during the training will be so close to a real experience. Soldiers may train during virtual combat without actually having their lives in danger. But immersive combat scenarios, similarly to real combat, may led to desensitisation. Soldiers experiencing particularly visceral virtual training will be less affected by violence. While this may be desirable for military purposes, the goal of the training is to make the soldiers resilient to violent situations, the same may happen to non-military users as well. Truly immersive and 'life-like' combat training simulations probably won't be available to civilians, but virtual reality games that come close to these simulations could be immersive enough to have such effects.

This negative effect applies to empathy influencing films. As Samantha Storr,[18] the executive producer at company, points out, viewers who are immersed in VR are in comparison to traditional TV more vulnerable to positive as well as negative influences. Those who would wish to force their agendas now have an effective tool to do so.[17]


The advantages of virtual reality are that it will be able to faithfully simulate anything and make the simulation believable. This shortens the gap between what is virtual and what is real and users may decide that the controlled and likeable simulation he is experiencing in virtual reality is more attractive than actual reality. They will want to spend more time inside the virtual reality, becoming addicted to it. They will seek out any means to either be inside the simulated reality or to get the means to do so, maybe even turning to criminal acts. This will have adverse effects on their own real life as on the lives of others.

Avoiding human-human interaction

This issues goes hand in hand with the one mentioned above. The great immersive factor of virtual reality, especially when advanced and for a human more natural ways of input, e.g. voice commands, gestures, gaze, may eventually lead to bonding between the user and the virtual environment and virtual, non-human avatars inside the environment. Bonding by itself is not a problem, this is the reason virtual environments, and by extension virtual reality, is and will be popular, problems arise when a user is is involved in the environment and the avatars present, that he would rather spent time with the virtual avatars rather than real ones, probably even avoiding real human interaction altogether. The advancements in perceptual user interfaces[19] and relevant technologies, such as artificial intelligence, computer graphics, binaural audio, haptic feedback etc. will only deepen the bond some users may develop with virtual ones.

Of course, several questions arise. It is feasible to talk about avoiding human interaction at all? Surely there are examples of avoiding social interaction due to the abuse of the virtual, the Japanese phenomena of hikikomori is one of those examples, but on the other hand, there are online communities that are very involved but their users don't neglect their real-life interactions and function. Similar point can be raised with the television in mind. While it certainly created the so called 'couch-potatoes', it did not make viewers to resolve to this style of life en masse. That is not to say that Internet or TV or any other addition is not a genuine problem, but we can not say with certainty that interactions inside sufficiently advanced environment will result in the majority of people totally neglecting their real lives.

Health risks


Virtual reality may have the ability to be almost totally faithful in the future, but the current state of the technology, while still having an advanced immersion factor, still doesn't completely detach the user from actual reality. This conflict between perceptions and senses causes negative effects such as eye strain, headache, pallor, sweating, dryness of mouth, nausea, motion sickness, vertigo, disorientation and ataxia, together known under the term cybersickness.[20][21] These effects can be mitigated by using more advanced virtual reality technology as well as performing virtual tasks that do not differ from what is the user doing in actual reality too much, e.g. the user is playing a virtual simulation of piloting a space ship while sitting in his real chair, this way the disconnection between realities is smaller and cybersickness will not be as severe.


Aftereffects describes the symptoms that occur after leaving the virtual reality. these could include disturbed locomotion, flashbacks, postural control and perceptual disturbances and fatigue. These are hypothesised to be the results of the user adapting to different sensorimotor requirements of the virtual reality and upon leaving the it, the user has to re-adapt to the real world again. These effects can be reduced by gradual exposure to the virtual reality.

Tetris syndrome

The symptoms of aftereffects are perhaps similar to those of the Tetris syndrome. Tetris syndrome occurs when a user, in this case most like an avid player, do a particular activity, i.e. playing a video game or spending big amount of time inside a virtual environment, that he starts to see patterns from the game or virtual reality in their thoughts, dreams and when they close their eyes.[22]

Enhancement or treatment

As mentioned in the Use section, virtual reality have great potential for therapeutic applications. They allow physicians and researchers precise control of the 3D stimulus and give them the ability to completely record the patients' behaviour. Virtual reality devices can be used not only in the assessment phase of a psychological examination, but also during rehabilitation. Thanks to their great immersive factor they can provide naturalistic settings and combine restorative and functional approaches together while eliminating their weaknesses. Restorative approach relies heavily on memorisation and attention, it trains the patient how to think, whereas the functional approach tries to engage the patient in an activity and teach him how to do. These two approaches can be effectively combined into one using virtual reality. This will also eliminate the dull memorisation aspect of the restorative approach and the rigidity and artificialness of the functional approach.[23]

Other case in which virtual reality could be very beneficial, is pain management. Immersive virtual environments can be a good distraction for a patient undergoing painful medical procedures. These benefits were already demonstrated experimentally.[24]

Public and media impact

The media and subsequently public impact of virtual reality devices is closely connected to its convoluted history. After the attention to VR ceased in the middle of 1990, media shifted its focus on other things. It was in 2012-2013, when the Oculus' founder Palmer Luckey introduced his prototype of Oculus Rift and successfully funded its development through Kickstarter, the media focused on virtual reality technology again. Facebook buying Oculus[25] only made clear even more that virtual reality devices are something media should focus on in the upcoming years. Financial analyses predict the virtual reality industry, especially the mobile sector, will be worth about $4.5 to $7 billion worldwide by the year 2020 and it will still continue to rise after that.[26][27]

The success of Oculus Rift inspired numerous big and small companies and start-ups to develop their own virtual reality device, or at least develop relevant technologies or VR applications. The years 2015 is a year of great enthusiasm for virtual reality. Some even goes as far as to call it the VR renaissance.[28] The attention was not limited to video games only, the media also devoted time to report on professional applications of VR, such as ongoing research into possible educational,[29] medical,[30] or military[31] applications of VR.

Of course the interest in virtual reality did not escape the popular culture and even politics. Many popular figures and celebrities tried or produce content for virtual reality. Popular television host Conan O'Brien has some of his shows available for virtual reality devices.[32] A Disney animator Glen Keane, who created character like Alladin, appeared in a video showcasing the HTC Vive.[33] VR users can hang out with their favourite celebrities with My360, Samsung Gear VR series[34] of free 3D videos available for virtual headsets and smartphones.[35] VR also made appearance for 2United States 2016 presidential election campaigns.[36] CNN and NextVR made the first democratic presidential debate in the US available to Samsung Gear VR users as well alongside regular TV audience. Wired reported the experience was almost as if one was sitting in the actual audience, albeit they complained that everything looked too 'glossy and fake' and that the VR experience was the only thing a viewer could do with his or her phone or surroundings without taking the VR device off.[37]

Public policy

We have not recorded any public policy that regards virtual reality or virtual reality devices.


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