In This Article Virtual Reality and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Historicizing VR
  • Immersion and Presence
  • Creating a Good VR Experience: Tracking, Rendering, and Display
  • Embodiment
  • Communication and Psychological Processes Reflected Inside and Outside VR
  • The Future of VR

Communication Virtual Reality and Communication
David Markowitz, Jeremy Bailenson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0222


Virtual Reality (VR) is a communication medium that makes virtual experiences feel real and appear unmediated. Since the 1960s, VR has been used by the military and medicine for training and simulations, but VR has also become fertile ground to evaluate social and psychological dynamics in academic settings. For example, journalists use VR to situate their readers within stories, educators use virtual technologies for experiential learning, and psychiatrists leverage VR to mitigate the negative effects of psychological traumas. What can an experience in VR reveal about people and communication processes? This article provides a multidimensional view of VR by dissecting its historical, technical, and psychological underpinnings that reveal unique characteristics about human behavior. We close with a commentary on the future of VR as tensions between academia and industry emerge.

Historicizing VR

The vision for modern-day VR largely grew out of 1980s science fiction, particularly during the cyberpunk movement. Bailenson, et al. 2007 details how titles such as Gibson 1986 and Vinge 1981 developed themes of (1) blurring mediated and unmediated spaces, (2) corporate takeover of media enterprises, and (3) digital information serving as the currency of society—all prescient ideas that have played a role in shaping how VR is created, popularized, and consumed today. By historicizing VR, and further positioning its origins within the fields of computer science, psychology, and human-computer interaction (especially after reflecting on Sutherland 1965, whose ideas about the opportunities and constraints of virtual systems are still relevant concerns today), one can appreciate how the fantastical nature of VR was born and continues to inspire its development. Most people already have some experience using VR. Popular games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft allow users to form real-time collaborations that only require a basic computer apparatus (see Bente, et al. 2008, which evaluated participant satisfaction associated with an interaction that occurred over different media-types), and Vasquez, et al. 2015 describes how education has been transformed by providing VR to populations with learning needs. Desktop VR systems are fundamentally different from immersive VR systems, however, which typically include hardware such as a head-mounted display (e.g., a headset that people wear to orient space and sight in the virtual world) and sensory feedback (e.g., auditory, haptic responses) to provide a surrounding experience for the user. Some sophisticated laboratory setups of immersive VR can include Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVEs; see Cruz-Neira, et al. 1992 for one of the first introductions to the CAVE, and The CAVE, which is a more modern view of the system), which cover the floor, ceiling, and walls of a room with displays to project the virtual world. In an immersive VR experience, the virtual world does not appear synthetic, while those using desktop VR are typically aware that their experience is mediated. As seen in Immersion and Presence, the combination of highly immersive technology and the belief that people are psychological attuned to the virtual world are two crucial ingredients for a successful VR experience.

  • Bailenson, J. N., N. Yee, A. Kim, and J. Tecarro. 2007. Sciencepunk: The influence of informed science fiction on virtual reality research. In SciFi in the mind’s eye: Reading science through science fiction. Edited by Margret Grebowicz, 147–164. Chicago: Open Court.

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    This piece positions VR within its roots of cyberpunk literature, culture, and themes that characterize this movement (e.g., superhuman powers, immortality, among others).

  • Bente, G., S. Rüggenberg, N. C. Krämer, and F. Eschenburg. 2008. Avatar-mediated networking: Increasing social presence and interpersonal trust in net-based collaborations. Human Communication Research 34:287–318.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2008.00322.xE-mail Citation »

    An early study that compares how people rate the satisfaction of an interaction, if the interaction occurred via text, video, audio, or when people were assigned to communicate as avatars. People in the avatar condition showed an indistinguishable amount of satisfaction compared with people in the video condition, suggesting that information is not lost when people have to complete a decision making task as a virtual human online. This early account shows that communication processes are capable of maintaining their fluidity and fidelity in VR.

  • The CAVE: A Virtual Reality Theater.

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    This link provides a more in-depth overview of the CAVE.

  • Cruz-Neira, C., D. J. Sandin, T. A. DeFanti, R. V. Kenyon, and J. C. Hart. 1992. The CAVE: Audio visual experience automatic virtual environment. Communications of the ACM 35:64–72.

    DOI: 10.1145/129888.129892E-mail Citation »

    This paper provides a technical and conceptual overview of the CAVE experience. It outlines how immersive VR hardware is arranged within the virtual world, and how systems are implemented.

  • Gibson, W. 1986. Neuromancer. New York: Ace.

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    The cyberpunk novel that motivated much of the intrigue around immersive technology affecting humans and society.

  • Sutherland, I. 1965. The ultimate display. In Proceedings of the IFIP Congress. Edited by W. A. Kalenich, 506–508. London: Macmillan.

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    Sutherland’s seminal paper describes how one of the draws of VR is its ability to provide visual representations that may be unlike real world representations. We can “gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world.”

  • Vasquez, E., III, A. Nagendran, G. F. Welch, et al. 2015. Virtual learning environments for students with disabilities: A review and analysis of the empirical literature and two case studies. Rural Special Education Quarterly 34:26–32.

    DOI: 10.1177/875687051503400306E-mail Citation »

    A review of virtual and immersive technologies that facilitate learning for students with disabilities in social skills. The small number of studies in this review (N = 19) suggests that there is an opportunity to develop new empirical and theoretical perspectives on how VR can be used in education domains.

  • Vinge, V. 1981. True names and the opening of the cyberspace frontier. New York: Dell Books.

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    Another novel that inspired thinking and interest around VR.

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