Table of Contents
- Virtual Reality … What does VR Mean?
- Virtual Reality in Hollywood
- Hardware Evolution
- What is it like to experience virtual reality?
- Hardware … Peripherals
- History Lesson … Sword of Damocles
- Hardware … Spoilt for Choice
- Software … VR Gaming
- Streaming in VR
- Health and Safety
- What is Virtual Reality?
In such a fast-paced world where technological marvels are happening on a daily basis, it can be difficult to keep up. Buzz words and terms like Metaverse, NFTs, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality get thrown around until they become a normal part of the zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s important though to just slow down and start at the beginning. Take a breath and ask the basic questions before jumping headfirst into the future. So what is virtual reality? Well, let’s find out together, shall we?
Virtual Reality … What does VR Mean?
Well, according to the dictionary, the answer to the question: What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.
To put it in more simple terms, it’s a 3D space projected in front of your eyes that immerses you within that fabricated environment.
Over the years, the technology to create more and more convincing immersion has grown immensely, but the fundamental concept has never changed. From as far back as 1968 right up to today, VR headsets have been created with ever-impressive boosts in resolution, processing power, refresh rates, and field of view. Not to mention one or two wireless headsets to really surpass most tethered experiences.
Virtual reality today now means endless possibilities. Any world or imagined vision can be produced in an artificial 3D environment that can be fully explored by each user. VR in more recent years has entered the mainstream and more importantly become available to the public at affordable prices but for many years, VR has been at least a part of our pop culture.
Virtual Reality in Hollywood
VR has always been a popular fantasy concept even in early movies to convey future technology. Movies like ‘Back to the Future’, ‘The Lawnmower Man’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Existenz’ and ‘Inception’ to name but a few. In more modern times too we’ve had movies like ‘Ready Player One’ which embodies a near future ideal of what virtual reality might one day become. The fantasy tied in with believable technology has long been a desired ideal for many.
Movies and TV have helped shape what we might one day be able to achieve within Virtual Reality and in fact, we’re getting much closer to making those leaps than ever before. The modern Virtual Reality experience is a lot closer to Ready Player One than the pixelated offerings imagined in ‘The Lawnmower Man’.
This success in pushing the technology forward only comes from consumer wants and not to put too fine a point on it … money! If the interest and the capital weren’t there, then we wouldn’t be this far along. Movies as a modern medium have done a great deal to drive people’s imaginations and turn dream-like concepts into reality. It’s not often I would say this but thank you Hollywood!
The advances in technology for the hardware used are nothing short of inspiring. It has come in leaps and bounds over the few years. The components needed to create a 3D virtual reality experience are many and complicated but the two main parts that influence how great the experience can be are the following:
- Lenses (type of lens, the field of view, and even resolution capabilities play a huge part in creating realistic immersion)
- Processors (the engine that controls refresh rate and allows smooth graphics and gameplay)
Over the years these two components have been improved to provide some amazing virtual reality experiences. This can be attributed to Moore’s Law which can be summed up as follows :
Moore’s Law refers to Gordon Moore’s perception that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved. Moore’s Law states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every couple of years, and we will pay less for them. Another tenet of Moore’s Law asserts that this growth is exponential.
If you compare the components of earlier VR headset models to the latest on the market, you’ll be able to see clearly how far everything has progressed. The beauty of all the advances has also allowed prices to stay static. Don’t get me wrong, the high-end headset will still set you back quite a bit of money but popular headsets like the Quest 2 have decent power, great lenses, and manage to come in an affordable package. Let’s take a look at the then and now under each of the components we’ve outlined: lenses and processors
|Oculus Rift 2016
|HTC Vive Pro 2
|Field of View
The lenses have adapted over the years and more importantly have become more affordable for use with VR headsets. The pros and cons of using LCD or OLED are debatable though. LCD provides closer together pixels with less gapping which helps negate a screen door effect.
The downside with LCD is that is always lit. So blacks aren’t really black but grey. The color and shade differences available through OLED can provide a deeper, richer overall image for viewers. In more recent years though, both types of displays have seen big improvements making it players’ choice as to what their preference is. The overall experience with either type in a modern VR headset is amazing to see.
Processing power is another beast altogether with many variants on the market. PC-powered headsets naturally rely on the PC they’re attached to for handling processes. The GPU graphics card of the PC does all the heavy lifting here allowing for smooth visuals, higher frame rates, and quicker loading with less pop-up. The more powerful your graphics card, the better the results.
Higher levels of graphical details can be achieved with higher-end graphics cards, but even minimum requirements for VR are quite costly. Nvidia is probably the most renowned card maker but other brands like AMD have more recent graphics cards that is also compatible with VR. Shopping around for the best deal is advisable but the general rule is, that the better the graphics card … the better the VR experience. Just make sure to taper your wants in line with your wallet!
Stand-alone headsets are different entirely. With everything built and fully functioning from inside the headset. The technology used here is more in line with cell phone devices. Popular VR headsets use processors like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series of processing chips just like modern Samsung cell devices. The fact that these all in one unit like the Quest 2 take all the choices away from the consumer is preferable for most. Unless you enjoy tinkering, having a finished product in your hand and a list of compatible games is usually enough for most people.
That said, you’ll never get as much processing power out of these units as you would from a PC. Also, with a PC, you always have the option to upgrade some components to enhance your experiences whereas once you buy something like the Quest 2 … you’re stuck with what you get! Not a bad thing though … the Quest 2 is an amazing piece of kit!
What is it like to experience virtual reality?
That is the hundred-dollar question. Anyone who has tried virtual reality knows how amazing it is but trying to convey that experience to others is really difficult. Once you don that headset, it’s simply like nothing else you’ve experienced before. Game reviews and previews on TV can display graphically how sharp the experience is, nor can they convey then a sense of depth and scope.
The best way I can describe a virtual reality experience is that you are no longer a spectator … you are inside the experience. The lens fool your brain and you can get a real sense of 3d as you would in the real world. There is depth and distance that allow you to visually see how far or close up objects are. This is completely lacking in a TV experience.
Similarly, when you’re looking at something in virtual reality, its size and scope will impress you. It’s not s flat image or object … it’s a towering building or vast chasm you’re staring directly at. The sense of size is almost overwhelming. Not to sensationalize it too much but its different from staring at a postcard of the Eiffel Tower to standing in person at the base of it looking up at the towering metal shape!
Hardware … Peripherals
The headset delivering crisp footage to your eyes and creating the illusion of immersion is only part of the overall experience. Any gameplay experience or even an app that requires navigating through menus will need controllers. Thankfully, controllers have also taken a huge leap forward to improve immersion in recent years. Take the touch controllers for the Meta Quest 2, for example.
The controllers run off one AA battery each which lasts an ungodly length of time before needing to be swapped out or charged. The built-in sensor work in tandem with the headset to provide one-to-one tracking for all your hand movements. The grips and buttons are also pressured sensitive which allows them to mimic your hand movements within VR. They also have a built-in rumble feature to allow for some light haptic feedback.
Put all this together and the overall experience is truly on another level. Using your head to look, your body to move around, and having functioning hands within a 3D virtual space is very impressive and helps pull down barriers between virtual and real.
If you have the money and want to pull the experience up to another notch, then there’s always Haptic Vests. Looking like something straight out of ‘Ready Player One’ these wearable vests are loaded with sensors and vibrating motors. The amount of sensor can provide realistic localized feedback to areas on your body where you’re hit in game. The level of rumble feedback is adjustable in case you’re worried about comfort but whatever level you use will enhance your gaming sessions.
One last addition that is a must for all virtual reality users is a decent set of headphones. The choices out there are endless and you most probably already have a decent pair lying around the house. That said if you are shopping for new headphones and can afford a few quid, try to get newer ones with 3D audio. The experience is incredible. Hearing from different directions while immersed just completes the overall trickery and may convince you that you’re in a completely different world. Just make sure that if it’s a horror game you’re playing that you have a spare pair of underpants nearby. Enough said!
History Lesson … Sword of Damocles
This is where it all began. An inventor by the name of Ivan Sutherland built the first working virtual reality headset back in 1968. Along with his student Bob Sproull they proudly unveiled the first-ever VR/AR head-mounted display entitled ‘Sword of Damocles’.
The headset itself had no camera built-in and was instead connected directly to a computer to handle the processing and visuals. The unit was also uncomfortably heavy and couldn’t be worn for long periods of time. Instead, it was suspended from the ceiling so no weight was added to the user’s head or neck when using it. Their face was then strapped into the headset and overall it was quite a scary-looking contraption!
The graphics produced within the headset were nothing like today’s standards but rather some rudimentary wire frame objects and models. So if anyone ever asks you about where it all began, guide them towards the Sword of Damocles. The title alone will make you sound cool!
Hardware … Spoilt for Choice
One of the greatest things about the recent surge in VR popularity is the presence of consumer choice. For over six years now, companies like HTC, Valve, Oculus, and Pimax have led the way with year after year headset releases, each one better than the last. We have certainly come a long way since watching YouTube videos through our Google cardboard devices. The list of devices currently all the market can suit all levels of interest and meet low to high-end budgets. Here is a list of just a few:
Meta Quest 2
Oculus Rift S
HTC Vive Pro
HTC Vive Cosmos
PSVR2 (coming soon)
HP Reverb G2
The competitive market is all good news for us consumers. Each company tries to outdo each other with better faster and cheaper as the years progress. The future is also bright with new additions coming soon from Meta and Sony Playstation which look promising and are set to break new technological ground. This forward momentum is amazing, and it’s never been a better time to be a consumer. As mentioned, you can find the sweet entry point that suits your needs and your pockets when you choose the headset that’s best for you. What a time to be alive!
If you’re thinking about buying a new headset or maybe planning your next Christmas wish list, then check out our shopping guide here.
Software … VR Gaming
There are many reasons to own and use a virtual reality headset and we will cover some here. But the most popular reason to own a headset at the moment is for VR gaming. The difference between flat-screen gaming on a console or PC and playing a game in virtual reality is astonishing. This is a point I’ll probably make repeatedly but the combination of visuals, scope, movement, depth, and interaction within the VR space is immersion. There is nothing at all on the same level.
In a good PC or console game, you get engrossed and feel in control of your character on screen. In VR, you are the character. You are right there, at the moment! Whether in shooting zombies, flying planes, driving race cars, or moving in time to music … you and your body and your hands are inside that world! It’s an incredible experience and quite addictive once you’ve tried it out. Reviews and video footage do very little to sell the experience though. You really do have to try it for yourself.
The evolution of games in virtual reality is also on a steady incline of improvement. With the advancements in hardware, we’ve gone from blurry cartoonish graphics with poor draw distance to highly detailed and polished gaming experiences. The level of detail and sprawling field of vision that can now be achieved is remarkable. The days of feeling motion sickness are all but gone as the software is complemented by the impressive hardware, leading to a much more realistic experience.
Games like Half-Life: Alyx and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners show just how far we’ve come with super high-resolution detailed immersion. Apart from those two gems though, what games should you be playing I hear you ask? Well, there are plenty of genres and tastes catered for, and knowing where to look can be half the battle. To help you out a little bit, here are a few links to some of our games guide across a number of platforms :
These are only a taste of some of the games you can check out in virtual reality. Be sure to browse our website for more!
Streaming in VR
Another amazing feature of virtual reality is the ability to watch thousands of movies, music videos, and TV shows. YouTube is a good place to start for some free quick content but the best experience is watching a full-length movie from the comfort of your sofa while at the same time feeling like you’re at the cinema. Again, virtual reality shines here with the level of immersion on offer. Your headset can transport you to a virtual cinema seat or a spacious lounge area and the movie itself can be displayed on a huge screen in front of you in that 3D environment.
There are many apps on the market to allow for this cinematic experience but there are a few famous ones that you probably already know and use on a daily basis. Netflix and Amazon Prime are both VR compatible and have absolutely huge libraries of content for your pleasure. As long as you have a subscription, you’re good to go.
As mentioned the experience is truly incredible. Getting to block out the outside world when watching an engrossing movie is what it’s all about. With VR, you’re automatically invested because your headset blocks your sight, your headphones block your sounds and all you are left with is this beam-like focus on the content streaming within your own virtual world. It’s a spectacular experience. Add to that, the ability with some apps to recreate an environment around you that can be changed to suit your mood.
Feeling more sociable? Then check out ‘Bigscreen’ which has public lobbies and allows you to watch content with friends or even strangers in large 3D environments. There is a wealth of choices for anyone with a headset. There’s also plenty of free or paid for content to consume, you just have to look in the right places. Never let it be said that we don’t help you out! If you want to find the best places for streaming then check out our guide here.
We’ve covered streaming apps, but there is plenty of other types of applications you can use in Virtual Reality. Pretty much anything you can think of doing on your phone or your PC can be done in virtual reality. A perfect example of this is ‘Virtual Desktop’. This is an app available across most markets that connects with your PC and mimics your desktop screen. This allows you to perform any tasks you like on your PC while being away from your desk.
There’s nothing better than sticking on your Quest 2 headset while sprawled across the sofa and still being able to read and respond to your emails or perhaps get some work done in excel while on the bog! Virtual Desktop is only one of many great apps out there. The list is endless and the potential to do whatever you fancy in VR is simply amazing.
Learn a new language, check on your social media, respond to text messages, attend virtual meetings, and explore social clubs and social VR environments like VRChat. The list goes on and on! The more integrated VR becomes in modern society has also led to more companies using the technology to their advantage. Engineers, surgeons, and even law enforcement officers have adopted virtual reality as a means to train on the job and improve employee skills and training. If however, you wish to avoid work and just want to know some fun apps to try out, then please check out our guide here.
Health and Safety
Health and safety is no joke and when you are using Virtual Reality there are a few things you should take into consideration. There are multiple symptoms you might be susceptible to after prolonged use of a headset. Each model generally comes with its own health and safety warnings but bar certain parameters, most guidelines are relatively similar. No matter which headset you own or use, the golden rule is to play in short sessions with plenty of breaks in between.
Other safety warnings include seizures, accidental trips, and slips, injuries, eye strain, migraines, physical injury, and motion sickness. Even without a history of seizures or epilepsy, some users still may experience blackouts or photosensitivity from the overuse of their headset. Some serious warnings indeed but again, as long as you follow the golden rule of short sessions, you’ll be fine.
The more common problem is that immersion may lead you to fall or injure yourself. Just look up VR Fails on YouTube and see how easy it is to get carried away.
In the immortal words of Ducard in Batman Begins, always mind your surroundings. The virtual worlds you interact with can be so immersive that you’ll forget all the obstacles and potential pitfalls around your living room! It’s very easy to smash your hand off a wall as you swing a punch in ‘The thrill of the fight’ or completely lose your balance while playing Richie’s Plank Experience.
Realizing quickly that you simply won’t remember your surroundings when using the headset is the key to reducing injuries. Clear a big open space with no obstacles. Use the tools provided with your headset too. Both Oculus and Steam have some great guardian settings for you to use. Set a safe perimeter to play within and let the software do the work. A warning grid will pop up when you close to an edge to stop you from overextending yourself.
Eye strain and dryness are other common outcome for VR users. You have warm bright lenses centimeters from your eyes so it’s natural to expect some dryness and eye strain if playing for too long. Screen time in general causes humans to blink less which leads to dry eyes.
The solution is predictable. Take more breaks and minimize your screen time. If you’ve already been staring at screens all day for work, then it’s not advisable to stick your headset on in the evening. Give your eyes plenty of fresh and consider eye drops to keep them hydrated before your VR playing sessions. Trust me, your eyes will thank you!
Last but by no means least is motion sickness. Women are more affected than Men when using a headset with around 77% of female users suffering some form of motion sickness from VR use. These occurrences of sickness lessen the more you use VR and also the advancements in technology have helped to lessen the effects.
Motion sickness occurs in VR when the motion doesn’t match the movement of your body. The mind doesn’t understand why the body isn’t moving and this causes an imbalance in your brain and queasiness in your stomach. It’s exactly the same experience many people suffer from long car or train journeys. Playing games or using apps with little to no movements is key if you’re affected by motion sickness. Stay away from roller coaster simulators until you’re well used to VR!
The improved tech also helps as mentioned before. Higher frame rates, smoother graphics, lower latency, and high refresh rates all help to reduce any jank or judders in your experience with can really help with reducing the motion sickness. Games and apps also have built-in setting that can adjust your experience and appeal to your comfort level. Click turning, blinkers, and teleporting are all tools that can help reduce or resolve any discomfort you might have. So be clever and use all the tools available. Adjust until you are comfortable and once you’ve gained your sea legs, you might be able to strip back some of the comfort settings accordingly
Healthy and safety is very important so please take the time to read the guidelines outlined by the manufacturer and treat them with the respect and importance it deserves. For more information on keeping yourself safe while using virtual reality, please check out our guide here.
Many guidelines suggest that only children of 12 or over should use VR. Although the guidelines are in place, the technology is so new that research isn’t conclusive on whether Vr is harmful or helpful for a child’s development. Certainly, in terms of capturing attention and teaching users cognitive skills, VR has no equal. The medium is ripe for educational purposes and gaming, in general, is an amazing way to teach hand-eye coordination while also developing problem-solving skills within young minds.
Add to that, gaming teaches our young how to fail and try again which is a hugely important life lesson. It’s clear that VR game developers want to cater to children as well as adults. Many games are currently available for kids to explore and enjoy. Be mindful of what games your littles play though and always supervise their experiences.
As VR can be so immersive, it can impact a young mind with great effect. Games that explore creativity and exploration are a great place to start and there are plenty available in VR. Minecraft in VR is an eye-opening experience and similar to its flat-screen counterpart, it is a brilliant educational resource for a growing mind. Crafting, building, learning elements, mixing ingredients, and solving problems are cleverly masked in a hugely entertaining package.
The benefits are there for a developing mind and VR is the perfect tool to capture the imagination. Not only that but where VR surpasses flatscreen gaming is in movement. There are many titles that will have you getting some sneaky exercise without even noticing. If you are happy for your younglings to partake in virtual reality and are looking for suitable games for them to play, then please check out our guide here.
In an ever-growing technological world, people’s data is becoming a hot commodity. The worry with Vr is that our data might not be safe. Headsets are loaded with cameras and microphones and privacy is a genuine concern. Meta up until recently forced any Quest 2 user to have a Facebook account linked to their device. You couldn’t use the headset without first linking or creating your Facebook account.
After severe public backlash, they have made this optional but only because of the big pushback they received. Companies knowing what you’re playing and browsing is one thing but being able to access your cameras or listen through microphones is a very new and modern-day fear for many. Big businesses don’t necessarily have a moral compass to follow and protecting your data is becoming more and more difficult. All that said, these problems aren’t exclusive to virtual reality products.
Our Alexa and Google devices are recording what we say, while our social media platforms have sophisticated algorithms to tailor marketing towards your likes. The technology doesn’t need to change but certainly the punishments placed on companies who violate our privacy needs to be adjusted. If you’re worried about your privacy then always read the small print and your user agreements before using your devices.
What is Virtual Reality?
So we started by asking that one simple question and proceeded to cover as much detail as possible. There is always more to learn and newer avenues to explore but hopefully, this overview of Vr has given you a general better understanding of virtual reality and what makes it tick. We’ve covered hardware and software, we’ve covered health and safety and privacy. We’ve covered experiences and influences. But we’ve only just skimmed the surface.
What is virtual reality? It’s a new massive medium that blurs the lines between the now and the tomorrow. It’s a fantastically creative medium that may soon become a mainstay in our lives. It’s a mark of huge technological achievements and a source of joy and entertainment to millions. What is virtual reality? Well, it’s a glimpse at endless possibilities!
Now go experience it for yourself.