Virtual Reality and Scientific Research: Where is Technology Taking us?

by February 28, 2020

Virtual Reality (VR) is a relatively new technology that opened many doors for researchers and entrepreneurs. There are countless examples of scientists using this new technology either to develop it further or to experiment with various attempts at its application. 

Furthermore, VR is also proving a commercial success and companies like Google, Microsoft, and Samsung are investing in its development for everyday recreational emersion. However, this technology has far more to offer than simple recreation. Aside from its use for various educational purposes, new insight is directing VR towards medical treatments and research, neuroscience, and complex data management.   


VR and Scientific Research 

The term VR is attributed to an American scientist called Ivan Sutherland and he defined it as the window through which users can perceive the virtual world as if it was real (Cipresso et al., 2018). The application of this concept came a long way since 1965 and the article “The Ultimate Display” by Sutherland. Furthermore, this technology did not advance just because it offers a new perspective on the virtual world. On the contrary, many find VR attractive because of the research options it gives us.  

Scientists find this technology so alluring because it is able to substitute the physical landscape with a virtual one and in doing so it allows researchers to have more control over experiments (Fox et al., 2009). Basically, that means that VR allows us to create an environment simulation that we can then interact with from the safety of our computer. Not only that, but our mind perceives the digital simulation as it would the real-life situation. That is, once immersed into the virtual world we perceive it similarly to our own. Therefore, we can use VR to monitor how our mind and body respond to certain stimuli. 

Also, one should not confuse VR with Augmented Reality (AR). The term AR is used to describe the technology that imprints VR onto existing, real-life, images of any given location. One excellent example of AR is the app Ikea developed to help you see how furniture will look in your room. You take a photo of a room and the software makes a virtual projection of an object in the location you want.    


Current Research With VR 

One of the biggest contributions of VR to modern science is in the field of medical research. This benefit can be split into three categories. Either we use VR to test certain abilities of the human brain, or we can use the technology to help in the treatment of mental and physical conditions (Garrett et al., 2018). Lastly, there are many examples of VR simulations used in the context of education especially in the field of medical treatment (Garrett et al., 2018). Education is possible because this technology can help medical workers practice certain procedures without a need to work on a living patient or real tissue. 

Aside from the advancements in medical research VR also helped make many breakthroughs in neuroscience. Earlier scientists often used rodents or other mammals to test their ideas about how the human brain functions and perceives. The practice was such because it was impossible to test humans in laboratories with specially designed mazes scaled for their size. However, with VR it is now possible to observe human brain responses using Virtual Maze Neuroscience Application. This allows neuroscientists to test how people respond to social interactions or how they use their spatial intelligence.

VR is also helpful in creating 3D representations of complex data sets that can then be observed in detail. One such experiment made a virtual projection of a brain-based on extensive scans. The scientist could later use this projection to observe the organ in detail. Furthermore, researchers believe they can make simulations of gene expression patterns of brain activity in the future. Through such endeavors, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of physiological processes as they happen in real life. 



Even though people associate VR with recreation use or science-fiction there are many other ways we can use it. The technology has the potential to change many research practices and it also has real applications that are already helping people with their medical issues. How far VR will take scientists depends on their ingenuity and ability to adapt the technology to their needs. 

Researchers, across the fields, do not have to fear their lack of knowledge about VR. Why? Most companies are helping researchers develop VR experiments. Simian Virtual Reality was built for the same purpose. So, you can hire someone to help you program and model the experiment. Also, they can help you get the necessary equipment custom suited for your needs and budget. This just goes to show how far the technology advanced and what opportunities it offers scientists.   



Cipresso, P., Chicchi Giglioli, I. A., Alcañiz Raya, M., & Riva, G. (2018). The past, present, and future of virtual and augmented reality research: a network and cluster analysis of the literature. Frontiers in psychology9, 2086.

Fox, J., Arena, D., & Bailenson, J. N. (2009). Virtual reality: A survival guide for the social scientist. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(3), 95-113.

Garrett, B., Taverner, T., Gromala, D., Tao, G., Cordingley, E., & Sun, C. (2018). Virtual reality clinical research: promises and challenges. JMIR serious games6(4), e10839.

Hoffman, H. G., Richards, T. L., Coda, B., Bills, A. R., Blough, D., Richards, A. L., & Sharar, S. R. (2004). Modulation of thermal pain-related brain activity with virtual reality: evidence from fMRI. Neuroreport15(8), 1245-1248.

Mazurek, J., Kiper, P., Cieślik, B., Rutkowski, S., Mehlich, K., Turolla, A., & Szczepańska-Gieracha, J. (2019). Virtual reality in medicine: A brief overview and future research directions. Human Movement, 20(3), 16-22.


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