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Virtual reality (VR) is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as in imaginary worlds. Most current 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, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback, in medical and gaming applications. Furthermore, virtual reality covers remote communication environments which provide virtual presence of users with the concepts of telepresence and telexistence or a virtual artifact (VA) either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal devices such as a wired glove, the Polhemus, and omnidirectional treadmills. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience—for example, in simulations for pilot or combat training—or it can differ significantly from reality, such as in VR games. In practice, it is currently very difficult to create a high-fidelity virtual reality experience, due largely to technical limitations on processing power, image resolution, and communication bandwidth; however, the technology's proponents hope that such limitations will be overcome as processor, imaging, and data communication technologies become more powerful and cost-effective over time.
Virtual reality is often used to describe a wide variety of applications commonly associated with immersive, highly visual, 3D environments. The development of CAD software, graphics hardware acceleration, head mounted displays, database gloves, and miniaturization have helped popularize the notion. In the book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality by Michael R. Heim, seven different concepts of virtual reality are identified: simulation, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, full-body immersion, and network communication. People often identify VR with head mounted displays and data suits.
The term "artificial reality", coined by Myron Krueger, has been in use since the 1970s; however, the origin of the term "virtual reality" can be traced back to the French playwright, poet, actor, and director Antonin Artaud. In his seminal book The Theatre and Its Double (1938), Artaud described theatre as "la réalité virtuelle", a virtual reality in which, in Erik Davis's words, "characters, objects, and images take on the phantasmagoric force of alchemy's visionary internal dramas". Artaud claimed that the "perpetual allusion to the materials and the principle of the theater found in almost all alchemical books should be understood as the expression of an identity [...] existing between the world in which the characters, images, and in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theater develops, and the purely fictitious and illusory world in which the symbols of alchemy are evolved".
The term has also been used in The Judas Mandala, a 1982 science-fiction novel by Damien Broderick, where the context of use is somewhat different from that defined above. The earliest use cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a 1987 article titled "Virtual reality", but the article is not about VR technology. The concept of virtual reality was popularized in mass media by movies such as Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man. The VR research boom of the 1990s was accompanied by the non-fiction book Virtual Reality (1991) by Howard Rheingold.The book served to demystify the subject, making it more accessible to less technical researchers and enthusiasts, with an impact similar to that which his book The Virtual Community had on virtual community research lines closely related to VR.
Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality, edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan and first published in 2001, explores the term and its history from an avant-garde perspective. Philosophical implications of the concept of VR are discussed in books including Philip Zhai's Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality (1998) and Digital Sensations: Space, Identity and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (1999), written by Ken Hillis.