What Is Virtual Reality? 

Virtual Reality

If you love science fiction or video games, you may already know aboutvirtual reality,” or VR. With virtual reality, you can jump to the other side of the planet in an instant, experience what it’s like to fly, and even explore pretend worlds. In a virtual world, you could go surfing with Abraham Lincoln or fight crime with Batman. You could even use VR to travel to outer space — in fact, NASA made a VR system that lets people “walk around on Mars.

Apollo 11
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Erisa Hines of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory test out “Destination: Mars” and feel what it’s like to walk on Mars, Credit: NASA

VR systems are created with computer programs that build a simulated, or fake, environment that we can explore in the real world with headsets, headphones, or other devices. A person wearing a VR headset can use it to look around and listen to the VR world that was created with the computer program. With virtual reality, you might be standing in a classroom but looking around the desert, or sitting at home and listening to the sounds of the rainforest! 

There many different types of VR systems, but generally, a screen in a headset will show 3-D images of people, plants, and the other components that make up an environment. VR systems can also track movement. So, if you look around the room in real life wearing a VR headset, it will feel like you’re looking around the virtual world because the VR system is moving with your head and eyes.   

Some VR systems also include something known as a “haptic system.” A haptic system allows you to feel the virtual environment. With a haptic system, you might hold a controller that vibrates when you do certain things, or you might wear gloves that allow you to actually feel the virtual world in your hands. With some VR systems, you can even smell in a virtual world. 

Training in a Virtual World

Virtual reality systems have many applications. Of course, they can be used in roller coasters and to make video games super-realistic and exciting. But, aside from all of the fun that VR systems might be, they can also be useful tools for scientists, doctors, and even soldiers.  

NASA’s “Destination: Mars” VR system allows people wearing special headsets to virtually walk around Mars. And, while this is great fun and an amazing chance for people on Earth to experience an alien planet, it is also important for scientists. Here on Earth geologists can walk around and see the rocks and land they are studying in person. Geologists studying Mars can’t. This VR system allows scientists to get as close as possible.  

Biologists can also use VR for their research. Scientists can explore 3-dimensional virtual organs, like the brain or heart. Instead of looking at pictures in a book, scientists can see a full view of a realistic organ. This could make it easier to study.

Richard Vincent
Richard Vincent, the CEO of FundamentalVR, shows how VR can be used to explore a human spine in virtual surgery. Credit: James Vincent/The Verge

Doctors and medical students can also benefit from studying virtual organs. Medical students can use VR to learn about the human body. They can even do virtual surgery and practice medicine without having a real patient. Doctors could also use VR to practice new techniques.

Tim Sudduth
Tim Sudduth demonstrates a VR parachute trainer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The military uses VR systems to train soldiers. U.S. soldiers in the army, navy, and air force sometimes train in virtual environments, where they can practice without any real danger. In these virtual worlds, soldiers can practice medicine, combat, boot camp exercises, and more.  

Virtual reality is still pretty new. But VR technology is getting better and more amazing every day, allowing us to explore our world like never before. 


Virtual Reality — An experience where a fake environment is created with a computer program. 

Simulated — A copy or imitation of something.  

Haptic System — A system that creates a physical sensation like movement or vibration through an object like a controller or glove.  

Geologist — A scientist that studies rocks and processes like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  

Biologist — A scientist that studies living organisms


(n.d.). Retrieved from https://scienceandtechnology.jpl.nasa.gov/virtual-and-augmented-reality-space-science-and-exploration-0 

Mars Virtual Reality Software Wins NASA Award. (2018, October 10). Retrieved from https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7249 

Surgery, Virtual Reality, and the Future*. (2014, May 12). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4017899/ 

Vincent, J. (2018, August 14). Haptic feedback is making VR surgery feel like the real thing. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/8/14/17670304/virtual-reality-surgery-training-haptic-feedback-fundamentalvr 

Virtual reality in medicine and biology. (1998, September 21). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167739X98000235 

Virtual Reality in the Military. (2017, July 12). Retrieved from https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-military/ 

What is Virtual Reality? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/what-is-virtual-reality.html 


  • Chelsea Gohd
    : Author
    I’m an experienced science writer with bylines in Space.com, Live Science, Futurism, and many more. I also have experience as an educator and mentor. I write for Smore because children are curious and fascinated by everything around them. By putting science into their words, their language, you give kids the ability to really learn about the incredible world around them. By translating science into words that kids can really hold onto, you give them the ability to appreciate the world and be inspired to become a part of science and progress

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