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Virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) is an environment that is simulated by a computer. Most virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced and experimental systems have included limited tactile feedback.

Users can often interact with a VR environment, either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through specially designed devices like a cyberglove. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world, for example, simulations for pilot or combat training, or it can differ significantly from reality, as in VR games.

In practice, it is very difficult to create a convincing virtual reality experience, due largely to technical limitations on processing power and image resolution.

Virtual reality originally denoted a fully immersive system, although it has since been used to describe systems lacking cybergloves etc., such as VRML on the World Wide Web and occasionally even text-based interactive systems such as MOOs or MUDs. Non-immersive virtual reality uses a normal monitor, and the person manipulates the virtual ambient using an input device.

The term "virtual reality" was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1989. Lanier was one of the pioneers of the field, founding the company VPL Research (from "Virtual Programming Languages") which built some of the first systems in the 1980s. The related term artificial reality has been in use since the 1970s and cyberspace dates to 1984.

The first hypermedia and virtual reality system was the Aspen Movie Map, which was created at MIT in 1977. The program was a crude virtual simulation of Aspen, Colorado in which users could wander the streets in one of three modes: summer, winter, and polygons. The first two were based on photographs – the researchers actually photographed every possible movement through the city's street grid in both seasons – and the third was a basic 3-D model of the city.

Virtual reality has been heavily criticized for being an inefficient method for navigating non-geographical information. At present, the idea of ubiquitous computing is very popular in user interface design, and this may be seen as a reaction against VR and its problems. In reality, these two kinds of interfaces have totally different goals and are complementary. The goal of ubiquitous computing is to bring the computer into the user's world, rather than force the user to go inside the computer. The current trend in VR is actually to merge the two user interfaces to create a fully immersive and integrated experience.

Virtual reality in fiction

Many science fiction books and movies have imagined characters being "trapped in virtual reality". The first modern work to use this idea was Daniel F. Galouye's novel Simulacron-3, which was made into a German teleplay titled Welt am Draht ("World on a Wire"). Steven Lisberger's film TRON was the first mainstream Hollywood picture to explore the idea, which was popularized more recently by the Wachowski brothers in 1999's The Matrix.

National Lampoon's Last Resort was significant in that it presented virtual reality and reality as often overlapping, and sometimes indistinguishable. Also, the British comedy Red Dwarf utilized in several episodes the idea that life (or at least the life seen on the show) is a virtual reality game. This idea was also used in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. .Hack centers around a virtual reality video game.

Other science fiction books have promoted the idea of virtual reality as a partial, but not total, substitution for the misery of reality (in the sense that a pauper in the real world can be a prince in VR), or have touted it as a method for creating breathtaking virtual worlds in which people would regularly live, play and socialize. One of the best examples of both ideas was Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash. However, in 2003, Stephenson admitted to Wired magazine that Snow Crash was a "failed prophecy."

In the Mage: The Ascension role-playing game, the mage tradition of the Virtual Adepts is presented as the real creators of VR. The Adepts' ultimate objective is to move into virtual reality, scrapping their physical bodies in favour of improved virtual ones.

See simulated reality for a discussion of what might have to be considered if a flawless virtual reality technology was possible.

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