Until the early 1990s, the term virtual reality was practically unknown. Then around 1991-1992, stories began to appear in the media about a revolutionary technology that allowed people to enter computer-generated worlds using a helmet and glove. Since that time, virtual reality systems have become commonplace, attracting hundreds of researchers and developing into a sizable industry. And although, until recently, these systems were so expensive that only large research laboratories could afford them, virtual reality has now become poised to enter the home in the form of virtual shopping and computer games. As with other new technologies, the emergence of virtual reality has raised many questions about its social implications, especially as there now seems to be a possibility that virtual reality may become a medium for communication.
This book has two aims: The first is to provide a sociological account of the emergence and the implications of virtual reality systems. Or, to put it in the form of a question, what are the social forces that have shaped virtual reality technology and how is the technology, in turn, shaping social life? In this sense, the book is a case study in the sociology of technology and, more specifically, of new information and communication technologies. The second aim is to relate this case study to more general theoretical issues in the sociological study of technology. As we shall see, there are still fundamental theoretical disagreements in this area. I shall thus use virtual reality to develop a model of the relation between technology and social forces that addresses some of these disagreements and may, I hope, point the way beyond them.