Cinema and Media Studies Virtual Reality
Miriam Ross
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0339


The early 20th century saw the coalescence of several representation technologies: moving-image photography, audio recording, stereoscopy, and color imaging. Many technologists, particularly filmmakers, imagined these technologies would one day provide an exact replica of the world as we experience it. This possibility was articulated in Henry Weinbaum’s 1932 short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles that accurately predicted later virtual reality (VR) headsets through his description of goggles that transport the user to another world. A few decades later, in the 1960s, Ivan Sutherland and Morton Heilig produced working head-mounted displays that immersed users in, albeit primitive, computer-generated environments. Experiments in the following decades provided numerous industrial applications from medical imaging and military training to flight simulation and automobile design. At the same time, this technology became more widely known in the public imagination through cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1980) and feature films such as The Lawnmower Man (1992). Although VR was most closely associated with immersive headsets, other hardware such as CAVE displays produced VR environments. In 1987 John Larnier popularized the term “virtual reality” to best describe both the emerging hardware and wider assumptions around virtual world building. Widespread press and academic publications appeared throughout the late 1980s and 1990s as interest in this area grew. However, the 1980s/1990s VR boom never reached full public acceptance and experiments with this technology remained peripheral throughout the first decade and a half of the 21st century. This changed in 2016 when a range of consumer-ready headsets came to market, and new applications for VR as well as industrial and consumer markets sprung up. For the first time, 360-degree film and video became commonly available for consumer headsets and were categorized as a VR application. Since then, there has been renewed academic attention, leading to a range of publications that address current VR systems as well as their past manifestations and future possibilities. VR has such far-reaching applications that it is difficult to condense the wide variety of scholarship connected to this technology. Indeed, the study and application of VR systems crosses many subject disciplines, with VR emerging as a subdiscipline in numerous subjects such as computer engineering, creative and performing arts, architecture, cultural studies, and design. Nonetheless, certain themes have been repeated such as VR’s ability to transport users to different worlds and its interaction with other media formats. The focus here is not on the numerous technical articles and papers related to the particularities of VR hardware and software but rather the books, chapters, and articles that describe and interrogate the holistic function of VR, how VR has shifted over recent decades, and the social-cultural and philosophical debates that surround this technology.

General Overviews

There was a range of publications at the end of the 20th century that paid attention to existing VR systems as well as thought forward to how VR would develop in the future. Batchen 1998, Bates 1992, and Strain 1999 are particularly speculative, while Biocca and Levy 1994, Grau 2003, Heim 1998, Hillis 1999, and Rheingold 1991 provide firsthand accounts of specific VR works. In each case, the authors connect VR systems to wide cultural and philosophical processes and many of them make the case for VR’s history to extend beyond the hardware developments that occurred from the 1960s on. More recently, Chan 2015, Evans 2019, and Ryan 2016 take into account recent VR developments with a similar focus on the way VR exists at the matrix between culture, technology, and other media formats.

  • Batchen, Geoffrey. “Spectres of Cyberspace.” In The Visual Culture Reader. Edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, 237–242. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Providing an overview of some of the major philosophical debates around VR, Batchen indicates the major thinkers who have contributed to these discussions. He explores the relationship between VR and cyberspace as well as VR’s roots in 19th-century imagining systems.

  • Bates, Joseph. “Virtual Reality, Art, and Entertainment.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 1.1 (1992): 133–138.

    DOI: 10.1162/pres.1992.1.1.133

    Bates offers a relatively early account of how VR connects to entertainment media with a focus on the type of work that would be needed for hardware and software to best serve narrative possibilities.

  • Biocca, Frank, and Mark R. Levy, eds. Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.

    This edited collection brings together authors with expertise in communication, computer science, and cultural studies to provide accounts of contemporary approaches to VR as well as the psychological, cultural, and social implications of VR.

  • Chan, Melanie. Virtual Reality. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

    Paying attention to the long history of VR, Chan charts the way representations intersect with various media and philosophical systems. This book has a particular focus on the intersection of materiality, embodiment, transcendence, and presence within VR systems.

  • Evans, Leighton. The Re-emergence of Virtual Reality. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2019.

    Evans considers the history of VR but provides a specific focus on the recent consumer technologies and markets that have emerged. There is a focus on the multiple world building that VR can engender as well as the ongoing challenges that consumer VR systems face.

  • Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2003.

    Providing detailed analysis of the artistic movements that offered proto-VR systems from the classical era through to the modernist period, this text situates VR within a long history of immersive media. It also pays attention to experimental art works that use specific VR technologies and situates them in relation to other uses of VR such as military and industrial contexts.

  • Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195104264.001.0001

    This wide-ranging text provides analysis of a number of 1990s virtual reality experiences from artistic works that emerged from the Canadian Banff Centre to engineering projects for removing hazardous waste. It does so within a philosophical framework that questions the outcomes of contemporary VR systems as well as what the future will hold for VR.

  • Hillis, Ken. Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.5749/j.cttts6mg

    Hillis offers a critical history of VR as well as insight into the function of 1990s VR applications such as those used by the military and NASA. He considers the metaphysical impulses underlying VR’s development and analyzes where they leave the user’s sense of space, place, and embodiment. He also considers the way VR interacts with traditional media forms such as cinema and television.

  • Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Reality. New York: Touchstone, 1991.

    This is the first book-length account of VR systems. It charts the development of VR in institutional sites such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA with a focus on the scientists who developed the VR technologies, their motivations, and their successes and challenges. It also provides an overview of the lengthier history of proto-VR systems.

  • Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

    Updating Ryan’s seminal 2001 book Narrative as Virtual Reality, which was concerned with understanding the relationship between interactivity, immersion, and narrativity across a range of media, this revised version takes account of recent VR systems and how they confirm as well as challenge the philosophical arguments made in the original text.

  • Strain, Ellen. “Virtual VR.” Convergence 5.2 (1999): 10–15.

    DOI: 10.1177/135485659900500202

    Strain discusses the state of late-20th-century VR systems in relation to the public perception of what VR can potentially achieve. This article considers the extent to which discussions of VR are as much metaphors for wider cultural concerns as they are concerned with specific technologies.

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