Lanier is probably best known for his work in Virtual Reality. He coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’ and in the early 1980s founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. In the late 1980s he lead the team that developed the first implementations of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays, for both local and wide area networks, as well as the first "avatars", or representations of users within such systems. While at VPL, he co-developed the first implementations of virtual reality applications in surgical simulation, vehicle interior prototyping, virtual sets for television production, and assorted other areas. He led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications. Sun Microsystems acquired VPL’s seminal portfolio of patents related to Virtual Reality and networked 3D graphics in 1999.
As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new "classical" music since the late seventies. He is a pianist and a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played instruments in the world. Lanier has performed with artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, Vernon Reid, Terry Riley, Duncan Sheik, Pauline Oliveros, and Stanley Jordan. Current recording projects include his "acoustic techno" duet with Sean Lennon and an album of duets with flautist Robert Dick.
Lanier is also a well known author and speaker. He writes on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technological practices, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism. His book, "Technology and the Future of the Human Soul" will be finished someday, but is delayed by epic procrastination. His writing appears in The New York Times, Discover, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harpers Magazine, The Sciences, Wired Magazine (where he is a founding contributing editor), and Scientific American. The nation of Palau has issued a postage stamp in his honor. He appears on national television regularly, on shows such as "The News Hour", "Nightline" and "Charlie Rose", and has been profiled on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Encyclopaedia Britannica includes him in its list of history's 300 or so greatest inventors. He has served in various research groups concerned with the future, and has been appointed a fellow at Cap Gemini/Ernst & Young, the World Economic Forum, and the MacArthur Foundation Roundtables, and is one of the “remarkable people” of the Global Business Network.