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immersive virtual reality (immersive VR)

What is immersive virtual reality (immersive VR)?

Immersive virtual reality (immersive VR) is the presentation of an artificial environment that replaces users' real-world surroundings convincingly enough that they can suspend disbelief and fully engage with the created environment. Immersiveness is an important element of VR applications, such as VR gaming and VR therapy. With the advent of generative artificial intelligence (AI), these and other VR applications can be expected to rapidly expand.

Immersive VR provides its users with a simulated environment that they can explore, seeing and hearing as they move through an artificial landscape. Such simulations can greatly augment the users' perceptions and understanding in educational and evaluative applications and enhance their enjoyment of competition in competitive gaming.

Immersive VR combines hardware and software to enable such simulations as participatory experiences. Three-dimensional (3D) software renders images that the viewer can observe, and often interact with, via a visual head-mounted display (HMD), which usually includes audio speakers. Tracking controllers, which can take many forms but are most often gloves, provide the motion control that enables the user to interact.

The importance of each of these applications is rooted in the increased effectiveness and more complete presentation made possible by realistic simulation and experience.

Immersiveness is usually considered on a scale or along a continuum, from least immersive to fully immersive. Typically, user engagement varies accordingly but is, to some extent, dependent on individual differences. An inadequately immersive environment doesn't engage the user, while one that completely replicates the real world could have unpredictable psychological effects. To date, the latter scenario isn't an issue because that level of immersiveness hasn't been achieved.

According to market research company Global Market Insights, the immersive technology market was valued at $33.2 billion in 2023 and is estimated to be worth over $228 billion worldwide by 2032.

How does immersive VR work?

On the hardware side, immersive VR requires high-performance processors and an abundance of memory. In addition, most applications require -- or at least greatly benefit from -- a dedicated graphics card to support real-time visual rendering to avoid or reduce latency. Motion controllers and dedicated hardware for tracking user movement are often required.

On the software side, environments are generally designed with algorithmically driven rendering engines that are optimized for both realism and smooth motion. Spatial audio is often a feature, with sounds in the virtual world repositioning as the user moves.

Responsiveness of the environment and the objects and simulated persons within it are also a major component of VR software. AI algorithms are used to generate interaction between user and simulations, enabling behaviors beyond mere scripting; recent improvements in AI are likely to take this responsiveness to new levels.

In building immersive VR applications, the following elements of the virtual environment must be addressed:

  • Continuity of surroundings. The user must be able to look around in all directions and have continuity of the environment.
  • Conformance to human vision. Visual content must conform to elements that enable humans to understand their environments so that, for example, objects in the distance are sized appropriately to our understanding of their size and distance from us. Motion parallax ensures that our view of objects changes appropriately as our perspective changes.
  • Freedom of movement. It's important that the user can move about normally within the confines of the environment. That capacity can be achieved in room-scale VR and dedicated VR rooms but requires complicated hardware for stationary VR and is impossible for seated VR.
  • Physical interaction. A user should be able to interact with objects in the virtual environment similarly to the way they do in real life. Data gloves, for example, let the user make motions like pushing or turning to interact with objects in a natural way like turning a doorknob or picking up a book.
  • Physical feedback. The user should receive haptic feedback to replicate the feel of real-world interaction. So, for example, when a user turns a doorknob, they not only replicate the movement, but experience the feeling of having that object in their hand.
  • Narrative engagement. The user should be able to decide the flow of the narrative. The environment should include cues that lead the user to create interesting developments.
  • 3D audio. For immersiveness, VR environments should be able to replicate natural positioning of sounds relative to people and objects in the environment and the position of the user's head.

How immersive VR evolved

VR's deepest origins are found in science fiction from the first half of the 20th century, but the earliest VR HMDs followed not long after in the 1950s. Computer technology was in its infancy, so the first implementations were limited in practical application. In the 1980s and 1990s, serious development began in tandem with the rapid evolution of video games, with leading vendors offering rudimentary VR for entertainment. These, too, were limited by the state of the art in computer tech, with primitive, pixelated graphics.

Since then, computers and graphics technology are orders of magnitude more powerful, enabling true immersive VR. Modern high-resolution headsets, like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, are far more flexible and comfortable than their predecessors, enabling the user more time for the VR experience and more sophistication in motion control.

What is immersive VR used for?

As VR technology has improved, other industries have seen its potential for a broad variety of applications beyond gaming, including the following:

  • Architecture. Architects can visualize their building designs, and buyers can see a home or building before buying it without going there. Such applications are an obvious extension of VR games themselves, with the added utility of tool sets that make the architect a sort of game designer themselves.
  • Healthcare. In healthcare, immersive VR can be used educationally to present care providers with realistic training scenarios using simulated patients and to visualize new procedures when they're being designed. For example, a training nurse can work virtually with a simulated newborn; a training surgeon can perform simulated surgery and be presented with complications requiring adaptive response; and a training caregiver can work with simulated elderly patients.
  • Therapy. As mentioned above, it can be used therapeutically, particularly in addressing phobias. Guided VR experiences that can rehabituate a patient gradually are possible across a broad range of treatments, from fear of heights to fear of confined spaces, with the added benefit of simultaneously gathering bodily response metrics.
  • Military applications. Since the 1990s, the U.S. military has been using VR applications for training, from fighter cockpit simulations enabling inexpensive aerial combat training to tank simulators for training crews for ground combat.
  • Education. Immersive VR can take students beyond the classroom into the historical past to witness simulations of major events firsthand; to space and the surfaces of other planets in the solar system; and into the ocean to observe aquatic life. Companies are also using VR to improve their employees' learning experiences. VR platforms can be used to train new employees and enhance the skill sets of current workers.

The benefits of immersive VR

Many applications -- from training to design to education -- can be made more efficient and effective using immersive VR. There are other benefits as well, including the following:

  • Controlled environment. VR environments can be controlled more precisely than real-world environments; for example, training can be made safer.
  • Reduced cost. It can be far less expensive to do design work and training in VR than in the real world, eliminating the costs of travel and the building of special facilities.
  • Remote collaboration. As in the home-buying example above, immersive VR is internet-friendly, making it possible to work with others remotely.
  • Reduced anxiety. Doing difficult things, like therapy, in immersive VR enables users to perform tasks or undertake VR experiences that are more anxiety-inducing in the real world, realizing that they're, in fact, safe while doing them.

The drawbacks of immersive VR

There are some drawbacks to immersive VR experiences as well. Some users have been found to experience the following:

  • Social isolation. Users can feel disconnected from the real world and lack of face-to-face interactions.
  • Motion sickness. The sensory disconnect between virtual and physical movements can cause users to feel dizzy and nauseous.
  • Eye strain and headaches. Eye muscles can become fatigued after use, causing headaches.
  • High cost. It can be expensive to develop high-quality VR systems.
  • Limited accessibility. Access to immersive technologies might be limited and not available to everyone.

The future of immersive VR

What's coming next in immersive VR? The supporting technologies are improving rapidly, and advances in AI are already expanding VR's horizons. There will soon be great gains in the complexity of immersive VR environments and the sophistication of the responsiveness in those environments. It's expected that augmented reality will combine with VR to create a mixed-reality experience.

Chart showing augmented, virtual and mixed reality software differences.
Mixed reality is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.

New applications, as well as significant improvements in existing ones, will include real-time social networking with fully realized simulations of others, rather than just their avatars. Virtual travel to other cities, states and even continents will soon be common. And, on a more mundane level, online shopping will become a "you are there" VR experience as well.

This was last updated in June 2024

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