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Virtual Reality Environments

On virtual reality, its applications, and our perception of this technology.

Image from Stocksnap

Written by Gia Douglass

According to Merriam-Webster, virtual reality is defined as, “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer ; also : the technology used to create or access a virtual reality” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). In essence, virtual reality creates a digital environment in any place that you can interact with or study. Its first appearance is stated to be in the 1920s as a flight simulator (“How Did Virtual Reality Begin,” 2017). Today, the use of virtual reality spans anywhere from immersive video games to “visiting” places around the world, such as the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. However, scientists are finding a new way to utilize this expanding technology. Researchers have recently discovered that they can be used to model data to create virtual environments to study remotely. This leads to the question, to what extent does virtual reality impact scientific research on natural environments? They can be utilized scientifically, environmentally, futuristically, and economically.

Scientific Perspective

Practical applications of virtual reality can be seen in science today. This artificial environment can take in data to create a reality that mimics that of actual nature. A modern example of this can be seen in The CAVE. In a scientific article in the newspaper, Oceanography, they write,”… [The CAVE] is a virtual reality visualization system composed of high-resolution projection screens arranged in a 10-foot cube with computer-generated images projected on three walls and the floor…the CAVE allows scientists to interact with virtual worlds created from observed data or simulations.” (Whelles, Valle-Levinson,  & Sherman, 1995, p. 2). The CAVE immerses the user in an area where all four corners, top and bottom, project the environment. The artificial environment can look like the user is surrounded by different areas, creating a seamlessly endless environment even though they are in a ten foot cube (Hill). Essentially, virtual reality allows for the scientist to interact with an environment without being present in the area. The projection in The Cave is realistic enough for researchers to gather data and study. An example of this technology being used for oceanography can be seen in The Cave. The article from Oceanography states, “Our CAVE application consisted of a three-dimensional graphical representation of a Chesapeake Bay bathymetry data set [with] depth [and] transparent isosurfaces derived from monthly composites of Chesapeake Bay surface salinity observations” (Whelles et al., 1995, p.5). The virtual reality system in The Cave was able to be made into a system to observe salinity data collected from the Chesapeake Bay to understand how the circulation of the water affects the shelf-to-bay transport of estuarine species. With this technology, scientists were given the resources to study data from multiple years and put them together to learn information currently unavailable to them because of the bay’s underwater location.

In archeology, archeologists often travel to foreign places for long periods of time to gather as much data as they can on a site. Sometimes, these excavations take years, but with virtual reality, archeologists have the option to quickly gather data and then analyze it through virtual reality. The scientific journal, Near Eastern Archeaology writes the article, “Scientific Visualization, 3D Immersive Virtual Reality Environments, and Archaeology in Jordan and the Near East” to elaborate on how they are implementing the STARCAVE system (type of 3-D virtual reality) to preserve data on certain sites and study it. It states, “…we aim to achieve: a virtual record of our excavations and field sites in a system that is highly visual and interactive. It is our hope that these goals will lead to new avenues of analysis and interpretation” (Kyle A. Knabb, Jurgen P. Schulze, Falko Kuester, Thomas A. DeFanti, & Thomas E. Levy, 2014, p.6). Essentially, they believe that through the use of virtual reality, they will be able to gather information from a site and then scrutinize it remotely, giving a new depth to their research.

A scientific use of virtual reality is also being exercised at Tidmarsh Farms, a group of cranberry bogs in Massachusetts. The article, “Extra Sensory Perception”, talks about how researchers have been, “…developing sensor networks that document ecological processes and enable people to experience the data the sensors produce…measure temperature, humidity, moisture, light, motion, wind, sound, tree sap flow, [and] levels of various chemicals” (Dublon & Paradiso, 2014, p. 40). Researchers can recreate Tidmarsh Farms to educate themselves on the ecology of the bogs. This is especially helpful because Tidmarsh is a protected area where people are not allowed to enter. With virtual reality, continuing the scientific study of certain environments is possible without actually interacting with the environment.

Environmental Perspective

Virtual reality is a platform where an environment can be produced from sensors or data without being present at the site being shown. This is a scientific breakthrough for environmentalists wanting to visit regions where they are not allowed or do not want to disturb. The reanimations are 3-D, not 2-D which allows landscapes to appear more realistic. In the journal Conservation Biology, David Orr writes the article “Virtual Nature” which states, “… virtual experience will be very convenient, and of course it is a lot easier on the environment of the real Tetons to have people visit a vir- tual Tetons and keep their trash at home” (Orr, 1996). The implications of virtual reality are that researchers can “visit” certain environments without actually being there. Therefore, there is no pollution or waste left from humans on the site. In effect, nature is preserved while scientists are still able to study and protect the ecological site. A case study of this is seen at the 250 acres of cranberry bogs at Tidmarsh Farms. Environmental organizations are turning it into a protected coastal wetland system (Dublon & Paradiso, 2014, p. 40). Tidmarsh farms is an essential bog that scientists have been studying for years. However, their visits cause disruption to the natural biosphere. The solution to this issue was to place sensors around Tidmarsh and recreate the area into a virtual reality experience where scientists can collect data from the area remotely.

Economical Perspective

Cost is a limitation that arises from the use of virtual reality in scientific study. The CAVE is the most widely used and accurate virtual reality environment simulator, but costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and tens of thousands to sustain. Luckily, new implementations of virtual reality are being built that are relatively affordable compared to the CAVE. Fortune magazine writes about Dassault Systèmes, “Now with the introduction of consumer headsets, Nahon’s team has developed a much more affordable alternative…solution Nahon’s team came up with was to use the Microsoft Kinect camera” (Gaudiosi, 2016, para. 2).  Dassault Systèmes is the company that created the Cave and is now finding ways for scientists to use the same technology with headsets that allow for virtually the same experience. With headsets being used by researchers, more scientists can study data without having to pay the high cost associated with virtual reality. If researchers still want an immersive virtual reality environment where the data is projected onto screens, there are other systems like the Hive. In the review article, “Cave: An Emerging Immersive Technology- A Review”, they write, “…low-cost CAVE solution based on generic Windows and Macintosh computers. The HIVE is also a low-cost implementation of a small three-wall CAVE setup made at less cost” (Manjrekar, Sandilya, Bhosale, Kanchi, Pitkar, & Gondhalekar, 2014). Just like any product that comes at a lesser price, the projection on The HIVE is not as sharp, and the quality is not as high as the Cave, but The Hive still serves the same purpose as the Cave; it maps data, creating an environment, ultimately letting researchers study the virtual reality room. Similarly, the scholarly article, “Scientific Visualization, 3D Immersive Virtual Reality Environments, and Archaeology in Jordan and the Near East”, writes, “…the costs have consistently been going down to the point of soon becoming a commodity. The Oculus Rift, a headmounted VR device, is expected to enter the consumer market within less than a year’s time, only slightly above the price of a computer monitor.” (Kyle A. Knabb et al., 2014, p. 7) The more popular an item, the more research goes into making newer versions that are cheaper and just as effective. The Oculus Rift is not the only VR device that is going to become affordable for almost every research institute, meaning that this technology is becoming more cost-effective. Virtual reality is an advancement that is constantly being improved every day, sometime in the future there is sure to be a virtual environment that has the same quality as the CAVE, but is more affordable.

Futuristic Perspective

Due to a recent surge of popularity and implementation of virtual reality, it is probable that virtual reality will be the new advancement in scientific and environmental studies. Geologists have already started mapping out data points in Haiti after the horrific earthquake of 2010. “Interactive terrain visualization enables virtual field work during rapid scientific response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake” states, “…geologists made remote observations of tectonically produced and modified landforms imaged by LiDAR [light detection and ranging]…map the overall fault geometry, look for surface rupture, and identify and document evidence of past surface ruptures…Our remote observations lead to a conceptual model for the earthquake behavior of the EPGF zone” (Cowgill, Bernardin, Oskin, Bowles, Yıkılmaz, Kreylos, & Kellogg, 2012, p.16). With the use of old data from earthquakes in Haiti, geologists were able to make a map of the fault lines in Haiti and create a virtual reality environment from it where they could study the zones prone to earthquakes. This will help scientists predict where natural disasters can occur in the future, allowing them to get help to the areas affected faster. They can also prevent the earthquakes and structural damage by not building on the fault lines or move communities away from the area.

In the scientific journal, Environmental Modelling and Software, they write, “This [virtual reality] system uses the SIBYLA growth model for predicting forest-growth development…based on Virtual Reality Modeling Language, was chosen as a virtual reality environment…offering an immersive virtual reality of the forest for the users” (Fabrika, Valent, & Scheer, 2018). The virtual reality system mentioned is the Thinning Trainer which can predict how future forests will look depending on the environmental factors that are currently present. This will aid scientists in determining if certain evergreen areas will survive in the years to come and if not, they can brainstorm on how to save them. The use of The Cave for this virtual reality study can save the lives of hundreds of forests.


Virtual reality has already been implemented into the studies of many scientists, however it is still not a common technology at most universities and research centers. The use of virtual reality can aid in new discoveries and help explain concepts to scientists. No matter how costly or new a machine is to a center, there are ways to overcome these problems. A piece of technology is no good if the scientist does not know how to use it. If researchers were exposed to virtual reality systems, such as The Cave at the University of Illinois, they would see how this modern application can greatly increase their knowledge in study and would also help them learn how to use it. In the article, “A Framework for Aligning Instructional Design Strategies with Affordances of CAVE Immersive Virtual Reality Systems,” published by two members of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (who are thousands of educators dedicated towards bettering learning through the use of technology), they state,  “In practice, navigating through simulations in the CAVE can be a difficult skill to master and moving too slowly or too quickly can cause users to become disengaged or develop motion sickness. Being able to move fluidly through simulations could help model appropriate behavior with the technology” (Ritz, & Buss, 2016). If researchers know how to use the system, then they can make the most out of the features of virtual reality. Next, talk to your local representative to ask if he/she would support promoting the idea of the state giving money to their research institutions to build virtual reality sets. Another reasonable way to do this is by directly contacting the state representative. In the case of New Jersey, they just “announced a $1.3 billion funding pot for construction and infrastructure projects at colleges and universities.” After this funding was announced, Rowan University “submitted a long wish list, ultimately receiving approval for $117.8 million, including $978,161 for the new virtual reality system.” (McClatchy, 2014) Finally, to implement virtual reality systems in our community, starting a foundation or fundraiser at a local church, school, or community area is a viable idea. In the case of Villanova University, they are getting a virtual reality built for them because they received a $1.67 million national science foundation grant to the school. (McClatchy, 2014) Millions of dollars is not a realistic goal for a small fundraiser, however if they receive enough funding from other places, it will still help them to be able to afford a virtual reality system.

References and Footnotes

Cowgill, E., Bernardin, T. S., Oskin, M. E., Bowles, C., Yıkılmaz, M. B., Kreylos, O., & …

Kellogg, L. H. (2012). Interactive terrain visualization enables virtual field work during rapid scientific response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Geosphere, 8(4), 787-804. doi:10.1130/GES00687.1

Dublon, G., & Paradiso, J. (2014, July). Extra Sensory Perception. Scientific American, 36-41.

Fabrika, M., Valent, P., & Scheer, Ľ. (2018). Thinning trainer based on forest-growth model,

virtual reality and computer-aided virtual environment. Environmental Modelling & Software, 10011-23. doi:10.1016/j.envsoft.2017.11.015

Gaudiosi, J. (2016, January 8). Dassault Systemes Uses HTC Vive to Replace Expensive CAVE

Virtual Reality. Retrieved March 06, 2018, from http://fortune.com/2016/01/08/dassault-systemes-htc-vive/

Kyle A. Knabb, Jurgen P. Schulze, Falko Kuester, Thomas A. DeFanti, & Thomas E. Levy.

(2014). Scientific Visualization, 3D Immersive Virtual Reality Environments, and Archaeology in Jordan and the Near East. Near Eastern Archaeology, 77(3), 228-232. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.77.3.0228

Manjrekar, S., Sandilya, S., Bhosale, D., Kanchi, S., Pitkar, A., & Gondhalekar, M. (2014).

CAVE: An Emerging Immersive Technology — A Review. 2014 UKSim-AMSS 16th International Conference on Computer Modelling and Simulation. doi:10.1109/uksim.2014.20

Orr, D. (1996). Virtual Nature. Conservation Biology, 10(1), 8-9. Retrieved from


Ritz, L., & Buss, A. (2016). A Framework for Aligning Instructional Design Strategies

with Affordances of CAVE Immersive Virtual Reality Systems. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 60(6), 549-556. doi:10.1007/s11528-016-0085-9

Wheless, G., Valle-Levinson, A., & Sherman, W. (1995). Virtual Reality in

Oceanography. Oceanography, 8(2), 52-58. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43924703

Virtual Reality. (2018). Retrieved February 26, 2018, from https://www.merriam-


McClatchy, J. (2014, March 3). Virtual Reality Comes to a University Campus Near You.

Retrieved April 07, 2018, from http://www.govtech.com/education/Virtual-Reality-Comes-to-a-University-Campus-Near-You.html

How did virtual reality begin? (2017). Retrieved February 26, 2018, from


CAVE: An Emerging Immersive Technology—A Review


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