Recall that complex $K$-theory is a cohomology theory on topological spaces, which can be described in several equivalent ways:

- Given a finite complex $X$, $K^0(X)$ is the Grothendieck group of vector bundles on $X$. $K^*$ is even-periodic, and this determines the entire cohomology theory. Using the tensor product of vector bundles, $K$ becomes a multiplicative cohomology theory. There is a corresponding ring spectrum.
- The classifying space $BU \times \mathbb{Z}$ for $K^0$ is, by a theorem of Atiyah, the space of Fredholm operators on a countably-dimensional Hilbert space. So we can think of classes in $K^0(X)$ as "families of Fredholm operators" parametrized by $X$: the "index" of such a family should be a virtual vector bundle, which connects to the previous definition.
- $K$-theory is an even-periodic theory, so it is complex-orientable and corresponds to a formal group on $K^0(\ast) = \mathbb{Z}$. This formal group is the multiplicative one, which turns out to be Landweber-exact. Consequently, one can construct $K$-theory directly from the formal multiplicative group (once one has the spectrum $MU$) via $K_\bullet(X) = MU_\bullet(X) \otimes_{MU_\bullet} K_\bullet$.
- The spectrum for $K$-theory can be obtained by taking the ring spectrum $\Sigma^\infty \mathbb{CP}^\infty_+$ (which is a ring spectrum as $\mathbb{CP}^\infty$ is a topological abelian monoid) and inverting the natural element in $\pi_2$. (This is a theorem of Snaith.)

It's sort of remarkable that $K$-theory can be described both geometrically (via vector bundles or operators) or algebraically (via formal groups or Snaith's theorem). The only explanation that I can think of for this is that the correspondence between (complex-orientable) ring spectra and formal groups is given more or less in terms of Chern classes of vector bundles, so a cohomology theory built directly from vector bundles would have a good chance of furnishing a fairly simple formal group law. (One can use this sort of argument to prove Snaith's theorem, for instance.)

A much less formal example of a formal group is that associated to an elliptic curve. If $E/\mathrm{Spec} R$ is an elliptic curve, then under appropriate hypothesis (Landweber exactness, or flatness of the map $\mathrm{Spec} R \to M_{1,1} \to M_{FG}$, or more concretely that $R$ is torsion-free and for each $p$, the Hasse invariant $v_1$ is a nonzerodivisor in $R/pR$) we can construct an "elliptic cohomology" theory $\mathrm{Ell}^*$ which is even-periodic and whose formal group is that of $E/R$. The associated formal group can have height up to $2$, so we get something much more complicated than $K$-theory.

It has been suggested that there should be a geometric interpretation of elliptic cohomology. This seems a lot more difficult, because the formal group law associated to an elliptic curve is less elementary than $\hat{\mathbb{G}_m}$. There are various programs (which start with Segal's survey, I believe), all of which I know nothing about, to interpret elliptic cohomology classes in terms of von Neumann algebras, loop group representations, conformal field theories, ...

I can understand why a geometric interpretation of elliptic cohomology would be desirable, but it's mystifying to me why researchers in this area are concentrating on these specific objects. Is there a "high-concept" explanation for this, and motivation (to someone without a background in geometry) for how one might "believe" in these visions? Is there a reason loop groups should be "height two" where the unitary group is "height one"?