Guides: What is Virtual Reality?

By |2019-07-20T14:54:33+00:00October 26th, 2018|
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Welcome to FocusOnVR!  If you’ve found our site, you’re no doubt interested in virtual reality, or VR, and all that comes with it.  From the headsets that make VR possible, to the games, movies, apps, and experiences that are available, you can learn about every aspect of VR on our site.  You might have some understanding of what VR entails.  Perhaps you’ve seen people using VR headsets, or experienced some basic VR on a mobile phone headset, and are looking to learn more about more immersive options.  Or maybe you’re a complete newbie to the world of VR, and not sure what all the hype is about.  No matter what level of VR knowledge you may have, there’s a pretty fundamental question that is often overlooked or neglected.

What is virtual reality?  Virtual reality (VR) in its present form involves specially-recorded or rendered visual content, displayed in a stereo-optic, side-by-side offset format.  The technology uses head tracking, positional tracking, and sometimes room tracking, to allow users to freely look around and even move within the digital space.  3D positional audio is often part of the experience.  The net result is an effect that tricks your brain into believing you are standing in a game, video scene, or other content, actually seeing and looking around, even interacting with the content that is presented.  It seems almost entirely real, but isn’t, hence the name virtual reality.

Expanding on the Basic Definition of VR

The above definition of VR is wildly over-simplified, of course.  It’s also really just looking at the current understanding of VR, based on current technology.  Really, there are many virtual realities.  Some have argued that fictional universe of a story book is a virtual reality.  Others suggest MMORPGs and other online games with persistent world and real players are virtual reality.  Even the universe of a television show or movie could be considered a virtual reality.  But none of these really speak to what we popularly call VR today, or what most people mean when they use or hear the term.

In general, VR refers to our current level of technology for tricking the brain into believing we, the user/viewer, are actually in an artificial world.  This can be as simple as a VR movie or video scene, where there’s no interaction or control.  Because of the various sensors (usually accelerometers, gyroscopes, and similar) that are part of a headset, you experience a phenomena known as head tracking.  Simply put, if you look to the left, it’s as if you are looking to the left in the virtual scene.  In essence, you become the “camera” viewpoint, and have the freedom to look around within the 3D space.  The specially-crafted cameras used to film 3D video, or the software to render 3D game worlds, works with the sensors to track head movements, and alter or compensate the video display accordingly.

Positional and Room Tracking

At the same time, more advanced VR technology uses positional tracking, up to and including room-level tracking.  This lets you move around more degrees of freedom in the virtual space, and is most common in interactive media like games, more so than passive VR media like movies or videos.  With positional tracking, you can move your body in addition to your head.  Leaning forward moves the view forward, as if you were leaning in the virtual space.  Likewise, moving from standing to sitting, or standing to crouching, moves the displayed view correspondingly with your actions.  Room tracking adds yet more realism, allowing you to no longer be “static,” with the camera more or less glued to a single spot on the virtual floor.  Rather, you can walk, jump, and move around the real-world room, and the camera and avatar within the virtual scene responds accordingly.

All About Tricking the Mind

The combination of a stereo-optic video signal (usually side-by-side 3D, where two near-identical images are visible, though slightly offset, one for each eye, like in stereoscopy), head, positional, and room tracking, and 3D positional audio can adequately trick the mind into believing the sensory feedback it is receiving is real.  This can be even more convincing in commercial settings, where other devices, such as gimbaled chairs or platforms can be combined with other special effects techniques.  But by and large, home use is the predominate form at present, for entertainment purposes, either through apps, experiences, games, or movies, with varying degrees of interactivity and immersion depending on the content and headset used.

VR Applications and Uses

There are a wide range of applications and uses for VR technology.  In fact, many new uses are being proposed on an ongoing basis, as the technology continues to advance and become more affordable.  While the primary market for VR technology right now among consumers is gaming and entertainment, there are many more applications being tested, theorized, or researched.  You can check out our VR Applications section for more detailed information.  In general, just some of the applications and uses for VR technology today include:

  • Immersive video gaming
  • Movie/video content or scenes with convincing realism
  • VR apps and experiences, usually video vignettes with varying degrees of interaction
  • Industrial design and engineering, to visualize, construct, or train on building or maintaining complex machines, such as jet engines
  • Sports purposes, both in the context of player training experiences as well as in media broadcasting for fan viewing of games
  • Military purposes, including more accurate capabilities with remote piloting, probes, and robots, training purposes, and other classified uses
  • Tourism, both as an augment to real-world tourism (such as using VR to show what a now-abandoned historic ruin might have looked like with people living there back in historical times), and as a replacement/accessibility tourism option. For people with limited funds, mobility, or health concerns, being able to see major landmarks and different parts of the world, in an immersive VR way, can be a breakthrough.
  • Therapeutic purposes, including exposure therapy for veterans with PTSD, those with phobias, and so on
  • And much, much more!

Experiencing Virtual Reality

There’s no easy way to describe virtual reality, and what it’s like, without having actually experienced it.  Even relatively passive experiences, such as free apps that provide short roller-coaster rides or virtual tours of exotic lands – can be quite impressive, and really sell you on the potential of the technology.  You get little glimpses of awesomeness, that get progressively better with more expensive headsets.  Fortunately, there are a lot of options, at a lot of differing price points, that means you can experience some portion of what VR has to offer, even if your budget is quite small.  We cover all the different levels of VR technology on FocusOnVR, from entry-level smartphone holders, like the Google Cardboard, all the way up to professional-level devices like the HTC Vive Pro, and everything in between.

VR Headsets

The main tool for experiencing VR is a VR headset.  Sometimes, this is as simple as a holder for your existing smartphone.  Others are much more complex, designed to plug into a PC or games console, with advanced sensor technology built in, as well as external peripherals for room tracking functions.  In general, VR headsets can be broken down into 4 major categories, each with progressively higher price points:

  1. Basic mobile headsets, that don’t have any electronics in them, but rather are holders for your smartphone. The smartphone handles all the video playback, sound, processing, and head tracking functions.
  2. Premium mobile headsets, that are designed to work with specific mobile phones. These often have additional sensors or other features built into the headset, that augment the phone’s capabilities with regard to VR.
  3. Stand-alone wireless headsets, that don’t use a mobile phone. Rather, they have an integrated screen and sensors, and on-board memory and processors.  Content can be downloaded over Wi-Fi, and played back or experienced on the headset, without the need to be tethered.
  4. Tethered, considered the top-tier of VR headsets, plug into a high-spec gaming PC or game console. The display, sensors, and so forth are in the headset, but the graphics processing and playback comes from the PC or gaming console, as does storage of the content and content management.

No matter what level of VR experiences you can personally afford, once you’ve had a taste, you’ll want more.  And, you’ll truly understand and be able to craft your own answer to the question, “What is virtual reality?”