Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated illusion that tricks your brain into thinking you’re somewhere you’re not. The technology has been developed to recreate various experiences, from driving a getaway vehicle to touring outer space.
When used with a (VR) headset and handset, VR software lets you interact with the environment it’s simulating.
What is a virtual reality headset?
A VR headset is a wearable gadget that makes your VR experience true to life. When wearing one, you can move whichever way you want and you’ll remain locked in the experience.
Making up a VR headset are two screens with a viewing field of 110 degrees. The wide viewing angle stops you detecting the edges of the screen in your peripheral vision. Each screen displays a slightly different image for each eye – a trick called Stereoscopy.
What is stereoscopy?
Stereoscopy is the concept of mirroring your eyesight’s natural bilateral vision. The technique allows your brain to perceive depth and thereby produce images in 3D.
If you close your left eye then open it while closing your right eye and repeat, you’ll notice that things move from side to side. But, when both eyes are open, our brains merge both lines of vision to create one image.
In VR, two slightly offset images are shown on the screens so that your brain naturally merges them as it would in reality.
How does a virtual reality headset work?
You need more than a stereoscopic display to create an entirely immersive experience. If you move your head and the display lags behind, you’re going to start feeling sick.
To solve this challenge, VR quickly pieces together information about your movements. The information is from these inbuilt tools:
- A gyroscope detects your orientation
- An accelerometer measures your speed
- A magnetometer detects the direction you’re facing
These components complement one another to show you a display that corresponds to your perspective. So, if you turn your head to the left, the display will show whatever is on your left in that environment and so on.
Most VR headsets also come with LED lights that send signals to sensors in your room. Sometimes, these sensors will sit in a camera placed near to your TV. Although, more expensive VR systems, such as the HTC Vive, involve placing sensors around your room.
The benefits of virtual reality
Today, virtual reality headsets aren’t only popular with gamers; they’re used by a broad section of people. From architects simulating a yet-to-be-built house to trainee pilots re-constructing a flight’s take-off.
Filmmakers are also testing the boundaries of the technology. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a 360-degree immersive film that makes us feel truly part of the action?
The BBC’s popular IT show, CLICK, devoted their recent episode entirely to the rise of virtual reality headsets. The show highlighted their popularity on the clubbing scene, where VR headsets can be used to get down with the in-crowd without ever leaving home.
Why has it taken so long for VR to reach consumers?
There are two reasons VR has taken a while to reach consumers: cost and practicality. It wasn’t until Oculus invented ways to bring down the cost of the technology and make it work in an average-sized living room that VR took off.
‘Cybersickness’ was another stumbling block. Due to mismatch signals that are sent to the brain (e.g. when running in VR but sitting down in real life) early attempts at VR were nauseating to endure.
Now VR headsets reduce or eliminate cybersickness. It is helped by the use of a handset, keyboard or mouse, which separates the virtual environment from the real one.
Essentially, VR tricks your brain into perceiving things that aren’t real, but not to the extent that it’s unsafe or nauseating.
How brands are entering the VR space
Technology companies realise that VR is an opportunity. Sony, HTC, Samsung and Google all want in on the VR action, and each has their own product strategy focused on VR gaming and VR wearables.
The botched launch of the Google Glass saw our first glimpse at clunky and awkward VR wearables. However, it’s likely we’ll soon see more comfortable (and stylish) VR gadgets that people actually want to buy.
What’s next for virtual reality?
VR is developing at speed. In fact, we might soon find today’s state-of-the-art VR headsets become redundant as the technology evolves.
Devices like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have enhanced the VR experience by introducing superior graphics, improved latency and a wider range of motion. Moreover, the reduced cost of producing VR has helped devices become more affordable for consumers. Now you can buy VR headsets for iPhones for as little as £69.
There’s a way to go before the most immersive forms of VR become affordable for the average household. But as the technology matures, VR will become something we all can enjoy.