In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section GIS and Virtual Reality

  • Introduction
  • Theory and Definitions
  • General Overviews
  • Virtual X
  • GIS and XR
  • Virtual Geographic Environments (VGEs)
  • Geovisualization
  • Digital Earth (DE)
  • GeoMedia
  • Cyberinfrastructure-Based Geographic Information Systems (CyberGIS)
  • Digital Twin (DT)
  • Geographic Dynamics and Simulation
  • Information Geography
  • Metaverse
  • Journals and Textbooks

Geography GIS and Virtual Reality
Min Chen, Chunxiao Zhang, Yucheng Shu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0266


The geographic information system (GIS) dates back to the mid-1960s. It is a computer-based hardware and software system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced data. GIS manages geographic, spatial, or geospatial data for spatiotemporal applications and geographic research, and employs cognition to comprehend geographical configurations and perceptions through computer mapping, spatial analysis, and geographic problem solving. Over the past decade, GIS technology has made significant contributions to mainstream geographic research and applications and demonstrated its potential benefits in various related disciplines (e.g., earth system science). In addition to its traditional role in geographic studies, the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web in 1995 resulted in a dramatic shift in how GIS was viewed as a means of information sharing between individuals. Several websites provided visitors with geographic datasets, enabling them to create maps on demand and perform simple GIS services based on user specifications using data supplied by the user or the website. In another field, virtual reality (VR)—characterized by immersion, interaction, and the use of one’s imagination—is the application of computer modeling and simulation that enables a person to interact with artificial three-dimensional (3D) visual or other sensory environments. ‘Extended reality’ (XR) has recently been adopted as an umbrella term for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR, AR, MR), referring to technologies and conceptual propositions of spatial interfaces studied by engineers, computer scientists, and scholars who study human-computer interaction (HCI). With the advancements in computer graphics hardware and algorithms, visualization, and interactive techniques for analysis, it is possible to establish the systems coupling of a truly interactive, multidimensional GIS and VR. Such systems, including Virtual Geographic Environments (VGEs), Digital Earth (DE), Cyberinfrastructure-Based Geographic Information Systems (CyberGIS), and Digital Twin (DT) have been developed and applied in numerous fields and applications, such as urban planning; evaluation of vegetation, soil, and waterways; human behavior and management of recreational areas; and geological fields. With the evolution of GIS from 2D static to 3D (or 4D) dynamic and the simultaneous evolution of VR technology to XR, the integrations of GIS and VR have undergone significant changes. Consequently, many publications on the theory and practice of integrating GIS and VR have been written and published worldwide.

Theory and Definitions

The works cited provide the theory and definitions for diverse GIS and VR perspectives. Regarding the development procedure, the integration of GIS and VR can be divided into three phases. During the first phase, the 1990s, Faust 1995 examines research with ‘Virtual X’ to indicate that the integration of GIS and VR started with ‘virtual’—such as virtual reality GIS in Faust 1995 and virtual geography as shown in Batty 1997. Vitek, et al. 1996 demonstrated the value of VR-GIS for digital mapping in the interim. Concerning the increasing variety and volume of digital spatial data, the term ‘digital X’ was proposed as a digital reflection of a complex system ‘X’, including ‘Digital Earth,’ as examined in Gore 1999 and Goodchild 2012. Furthermore, Lin and Gong 2001 proposed virtual geographic environments (VGEs), and MacEachren and Kraak 2001 proposed that geovisualization supported by VR can benefit from immersive and highly interactive virtual environments. In the second phase, between 2000 and 2010, GIS and VR integration were applied in smart cities (see Cocchia 2014) and digital twin (DT) and Web GIS were combined with VR, AR, MR, and XR garnered worldwide attention. In addition, Wang, et al. 2013 introduced cyberinfrastructure-based geographic information systems (CyberGIS). With the integration of the Internet and VR in Goodchild 2012, geographic models and simulations were rapidly developed to replicate not only the form of the Earth but also its processes. In the third phase, from 2010 to the present, VR GIS, Digital Earth, VGEs, and relevant studies are still developing. Moreover, Lü, et al. 2022 proposed “informative geography” to construct a geographical ternary world composed of physical and human geography.

  • Batty, Michael. “Virtual Geography.” Futures 29.4–5 (1997): 337–352.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0016-3287(97)00018-9

    Discussion of virtual geography comprising digital places and spaces and their comparison with cyberplace and cyberspace.

  • Cocchia, Annalisa. “Smart and Digital City: A Systematic Literature Review.” In Smart City. Edited by R. Dameri and C. Rosenthal-Sabroux, 13–43. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-06160-3_2

    The concept of Smart City was proposed, which could be compared to Digital City.

  • Faust, Nickolas L. “The Virtual Reality of GIS.” Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science 22.3 (1995): 257–268.

    DOI: 10.1068/b220257

    Four kinds of major functions of a truly interactive 3D virtual reality GIS are discussed.

  • Goodchild, Michael F. “The Future of Digital Earth.” Annals of GIS 18.2 (2012): 93–98.

    DOI: 10.1080/19475683.2012.668561

    The term ‘digital X’ is proposed as a digital mirror of some complex system ‘X’ embedded in space and time—for example, ‘Digital Earth’ and ‘Digital City’.

  • Gore, Al. “The Digital Earth: Understanding Our Planet in the 21st Century.” Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing (1999): 528–530.

    The former US vice president discusses the concept of ‘Digital Earth’ and its effect on the Earth.

  • Lin, Hui, and Jianhua Gong. “Exploring Virtual Geographic Environments.” Annals of Geographic Information Sciences 7.1 (2001): 1–7.

    The concept of VGEs is proposed, while emphasizing their applications in solving geographic problems.

  • Li, Xin, Donghai Zheng, Min Feng, and Fahu Chen. “Information Geography: The Information Revolution Reshapes Geography.” Science China Earth Sciences 65.2 (2022): 379–382.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11430-021-9857-5

    The concept of ‘geographic ternary world’ is proposed, consisting of information geography, physical geography, and human geography.

  • Lü, Guonian, Linwang Yuan, and Zhaoyuan Yu. “Information Geography: A New Fulcrum of Geographic Ternary World.” Science China Earth Sciences 65.2 (2022): 383–386.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11430-021-9859-9

    The concept of ‘information geography’ is proposed and reviewed from the perspectives of geographic information science and human geography.

  • MacEachren, Alan M., and Menno-Jan Kraak. “Research Challenges in Geovisualization.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 28.1 (2001): 3–12.

    DOI: 10.1559/152304001782173970

    With the development of VR and geovisualization, maps can be developed to be immersive, with highly interactive virtual environments, to explore and present dynamic geospatial data in a more effective manner.

  • Vitek, John D., John R. Giardino, and Jeffrey W. Fitzgerald. “Mapping Geomorphology: A Journey from Paper Maps, through Computer Mapping to GIS and Virtual Reality.” Geomorphology 16.3 (1996): 233–249.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0169-555X(96)80003-1

    A survey of the development in a region using paper maps through computer mapping, GIS, and VR.

  • Wang, Shaowen, Luc Anselin, Budhendra Bhaduri, et al. “CyberGIS software: A Synthetic Review and Integration Roadmap.” International Journal of Geographical Information Science 27.11 (2013): 2122–2145.

    DOI: 10.1080/13658816.2013.776049

    The definition of CyberGIS emerged as a new generation of GIS representing an important study direction for both cyberinfrastructure and geographic information science.

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