It’s hard to believe that it is more than seven years since Oculus released the Rift – the first high-quality digital VR headset available to the public. Since then, numerous other competitors have entered the space, looking to provide users with an even better experience. Today, using a VR headset feels utterly immersive – like you’re in a pixelated dream.
VR is about to become mass market, particularly if Facebook’s Meta has anything to do with it. By the end of the decade, they want everyone immersed in digital worlds, controlling their own avatars, just like in the film.
Before that happens, though, regular users like you need to understand what VR is and the applications that it has. That’s the topic of this post. In it, we explain VR, some of the basic concepts, and how brands are applying it.
So, without further ado, let’s get started:
What Is VR?
VR means “virtual reality” and the concept has been around for a long time. Even back in the 1990s, computer geeks were creating devices that would wrap around their heads and give them a more immersive visual experience.
When you think about it, we’ve had audio VR for a long time. Anyone who’s ever worn a pair of headphones knows this. However, in the early days, the technology to reproduce vision was pretty basic. Not only were VR images highly pixelated, but headsets themselves didn’t keep up with the human sense of balance and orientation, making people quickly feel sick.
These days, manufacturers are solving those issues. While VR headsets still require beefy, expensive graphics cards to run them, they are much snappier than they were in the past. When you turn your head, what you see also moves realistically, just as in conventional atom-based reality.
How well systems work depend on the manufacturer. Some require you to face forwards while others work at any orientation.
As you get deeper into the VR space, you’ll come across a bunch of terminology and jargon. It’s confusing at first, but once you get used to it, it soon slips into your everyday language.
Degrees Of Freedom
In terms of VR, degrees of freedom refers to the number of dimensions of movement you can move through.
Some headsets have three degrees of freedom. They let you tilt your head up and down, side to side and rotationally. Others have additional degrees of freedom that allow you to jump up and down, move your body side to side or back and forth.
Usually, you’ll see headset manufacturers quoting degrees of freedom as 3DoF or 6DoF. They may also include annoying terms like “roll,” “pitch” and “yaw” which originally came from the aerospace industry. These all essentially mean the same thing.
VR headsets all come with systems that let them communicate with your computer about their location and what you are looking at. Without tracking systems, you could turn your head and the VR headset would display the exact same image of your 3D environment – as if you hadn’t moved at all. (In fact, many basic headsets for smartphones are just like this).
VR headset sellers use so-called “simultaneous location and mapping” or SLAM algorithms to position you accurately in the 3D environment. The headset sends orientation information to your computer which then uses this to tell your graphics processor what to display on the headset.
This is sometimes called “outside in” tracking because it relies on external points of reference to determine orientation. Another type of tracking, called “inside out,” does the opposite.
Many major brands, such as the HTC Vive Cosmas and the Oculus Quest use this type of tracking. These headsets track the movement of the head and body from the headset itself, a little bit like how smartphones can tell their precise orientation.
Controllers are another important component of VR systems, particularly those linked to drones, such as the DJI FPV. Controllers allow users to give commands to alter the images on their display.
For instance, in a game, pressing “right” on the control pad will pivot the camera to the right. When using a VR headset to fly a drone (and see what it sees), controllers actually control the physical trajectory of the device, giving the user a profound sense of control.
Roomscale, Standing And Seated
VR systems track different “volumes” or areas of control, depending on the device and the manufacturer.
Roomscale is what you might imagine: VR headsets that track the entire room (or the space close to you), allowing you to move around in the game world and interact with various objects.
Seated and standing are more restrictive. Here, you’re able to move around in a confined space, but can’t explore freely.
Seated and standing are the most common for games right now. That’s because most people don’t have much space to move around and, second, when they’re wearing VR headsets, they can’t see where they are going.
Some games, such as flight simulators, are set up for remaining seated in one position, so using VR for these can be a lot of fun. However, exploration games can feel a little awkward. Instead of moving physically to new territory, you have to press a button on your controller.
Interpupillary isn’t a word that most of us use in everyday language, so when you first come across it in your VR headset research, it can cause a great deal of confusion. The actual meaning of the phrase, though, is simple enough: it’s just the distance between the pupils in the middle of your eyes – a few centimeters.
VR headset manufacturers allow you to vary the IPD, depending on how far apart your eyes are. This is helpful because it means that you can align the lenses better to accommodate your vision. If the IPD is wrong, then the image displayed may appear a little blurry.
Some headsets don’t allow any physical IPD manipulation. To correct for this, they often use compensatory software that works in the background. Usually, you won’t notice anything at all. It all happens seamlessly.
How Does Movement Work?
Getting around in VR game worlds can make players feel nauseous. That’s why many games feature teleport functions. Instead of physically making your way to a particular destination, the game transports you there immediately.
When you think about it, combining in-game teleport with roomscale makes a lot of sense. Most people’s homes aren’t the size of vast wildernesses, so getting around still needs some clever thinking on the part of developers. Teleportation achieves this. VR takes users to smaller locales where they can interact with objects in a room-sized space.
Smooth locomotion is another form of getting around in VR. Just like in a traditional video game, you click a button and then move. Unfortunately, this makes some folks feel sick. For most people, this effect kicks in after a couple of minutes, while for others, it’s instantaneous.
To get around this, VR manufacturers are developing systems that restrict the field of view – the area that users can see. By reducing movement in the periphery, manufacturers are finding that they can cut down on motion sickness.
Many devices list this feature under “comfort settings.” Users can set tunnel vision and then slowly widen their field of view as they begin to feel more comfortable.
There are three generally available VR types: Console VR, PC VR and standalone kits.
Console VR works with games consoles, like the PS5, Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Labo VR. Headsets are usually an additional purchase that you make alongside the main console unit.
Each console manufacturer has a slightly different system. PlayStation’s VR, for instance, relies on the camera at the front of the console. Nintendo, on the other hand, uses cardboard.
PC VR is the most advanced and sophisticated. It’s popular among gamers with high-performance computers and beefy graphics chips.
This market has the most options. HTC Vive, Pimax, Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality systems are all available. Since Microsoft is a big augmented reality developer (for its businesses clients mainly), Windows comes with many supporting features that make it easy to set up and use VR.
Lastly, standalone VR are VR headsets that work by themselves, without borrowing processing power from a computer or games console. This provides players with a highly portable experience. The cost is lower graphical fidelity and the need to regularly charge the unit.
What About Drones?
As mentioned earlier, the VR market is also combining with drone technology to produce a new kind of hybrid or mixed-reality experience. Essentially, VR headsets give drone enthusiasts the chance to experience what it’s like to fly onboard their drones. Many tap into drones’ 360-degree cameras, allowing pilots to turn their heads, look side to side, while also flying along.
Thanks to the efforts of leading manufacturers, the level of support for this equipment is increasing. It’s something that’s fun for adults, but not yet recommended for younger kids because of the risk of crashing the drone.