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Hear the words ‘virtual reality’ and most of us think Star Trek, The Matrix and thoroughly disappointing fairground simulators. But what exactly is virtual reality? How does it work? And what could it mean for marketing?

In essence, virtual reality, or ‘immersive multimedia’ is a three-dimensional computer generated environment that simulates physical presence in real or imagined worlds. Often utilising a head-mounted display or glasses, the technology can be combined with sound, smell, touch etc. to create highly realistic multi-sensory experiences.

The concept of virtual reality has long been a fascination of science fiction writers, having featured in countless films, TV shows and books for over half a century. Whilst for many, the technology is still considered a vision of the future, in truth, mainstream virtual reality has arrived and is already being used to great effect. From automotive to health care; entertainment to retail, the past few years have seen significant developments in virtual reality technologies, opening the door to a vast array of possible applications.

With the release of products such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headset, virtual reality is now low cost and readily accessible – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of the world’s largest brands. Toyota’s ‘TeenDrive365’ safety simulator, Harrods’ virtual reality property tours, and Volvo’s Google Cardboard test drive campaign are all notable examples of brands using versions of the technology to engage with consumers.

For marketers, the opportunities to exploit the technology are enormous. Imagine being able to offer consumers the chance to walk around a hotel before booking a holiday, sit in the front row of the World Cup final, or visit a virtual version of a physical store – all without leaving their homes.

How quickly the technology spreads remains to be seen – but Facebook’s recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift is a strong indication that for many, virtual reality may soon be part of everyday life.

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