Virtual reality (VR) started about 50 years ago in a form we would recognize today [stereo head-mounted display (HMD), head tracking, computer graphics generated images] – although the hardware was completely different. In the 1980s and 1990s, VR emerged again based on a different generation of hardware (e.g., CRT displays rather than vector refresh, electromagnetic tracking instead of mechanical). This reached the attention of the public, and VR was hailed by many engineers, scientists, celebrities, and business people as the beginning of a new era, when VR would soon change the world for the better. Then, VR disappeared from public view and was rumored to be “dead.” In the intervening 25 years a huge amount of research has nevertheless been carried out across a vast range of applications – from medicine to business, from psychotherapy to industry, from sports to travel. Scientists, engineers, and people working in industry carried on with their research and applications using and exploring different forms of VR, not knowing that actually the topic had already passed away.
The purpose of this article is to survey a range of VR applications where there is some evidence for, or at least debate about, its utility, mainly based on publications in peer-reviewed journals. Of course not every type of application has been covered, nor every scientific paper (about 186,000 papers in Google Scholar): in particular, in this review we have not covered applications in psychological or medical rehabilitation. The objective is that the reader becomes aware of what has been accomplished in VR, where the evidence is weaker or stronger, and what can be done. We start in Section 1 with an outline of what VR is and the major conceptual framework used to understand what happens when people experience it – the concept of “presence.” In Section 2, we review some areas where VR has been used in science – mostly psychology and neuroscience, the area of scientific visualization, and some remarks about its use in education and surgical training. In Section 3, we discuss how VR has been used in sports and exercise. In Section 4, we survey applications in social psychology and related areas – how VR has been used to throw light on some social phenomena, and how it can be used to tackle experimentally areas that cannot be studied experimentally in real life. We conclude with how it has been used in the preservation of and access to cultural heritage. In Section 5, we present the domain of moral behavior, including an example of how it might be used to train professionals such as medical doctors when confronting serious dilemmas with patients. In Section 6, we consider how VR has been and might be used in various aspects of travel, collaboration, and industry. In Section 7, we consider mainly the use of VR in news presentation and also discuss different types of VR. In the concluding Section 8, we briefly consider new ideas that have recently emerged – an impossible task since during the short time we have written this page even newer ideas have emerged! And, we conclude with some general considerations and speculations.
Throughout and wherever possible we have stressed novel applications and approaches and how the real power of VR is not necessarily to produce a faithful reproduction of “reality” but rather that it offers the possibility to step outside of the normal bounds of reality and realize goals in a totally new and unexpected way. We hope that our article will provoke readers to think as paradigm changers, and advance VR to realize different worlds that might have a positive impact on the lives of millions of people worldwide, and maybe even help a little in saving the planet.