With virtual reality, you can tour the universe in a spaceship, view a potential house before buying, perform a medical operation and create 3D art, all from the comfort of your own home.
Virtual reality (VR) simulates different environments using a headset and motion sensors and is being used in a wide range of applications, from education to journalism to well-being. In this guide, we’ll explore:
The popularity with modern VR began in 2010, when Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of a VR headset that would evolve into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, he launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and raised $2.4m, bringing VR into the public interest. Two years after that, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, bought the company for $2bn.
The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign raised $2.4m and introduced VR into the public image.
Several competitors have emerged since then, from the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR to smartphone-powered headsets such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Daydream. Meanwhile, thousands of developers are making VR experiences, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, and Facebook and YouTube are creating 360-degree videos.
Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions to determine what happens in the environment.
Virtual reality usually has these characteristics:
The most important piece of virtual reality is the headset, a device like a pair of goggles that goes over your eyes. The more expensive, higher quality headsets need to be connected to a computer to run apps and games, while some cheaper ones use a mobile placed at the front of the headset.
Headsets work best when combined with a pair of headphones, and there are other optional accessories such as hand controllers, to enhance your simulated experience of being in another world.
Virtual reality headsets fit into three broad categories, mobile, desktop or standalone.
Mobile VR headsets
Mobile headsets are shells with lenses into which you place your smartphone. The lenses separate the screen into two images for your eyes, turning your smartphone into a VR device. Mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View are relatively inexpensive at under $100, and because all of the processing is done on your phone, you don't need to connect any wires to the headset.
However, because phones aren't designed specifically for VR, they can't offer the best visual experiences, and are underpowered compared with PC or game console-based VR. In addition, there is currently no positional tracking with mobile VR. You can look around an environment from a single point, however you can’t look around objects. Recently, Google and other companies announced they are introducing mobile tracking in the near future.
Enjoy high-quality VR anywhere you want with no cables, phone or PC. An all-in-one VR headset, or standalone, puts everything in the headband needed to convince you that you’re in another world. It is a single integrated piece of hardware, like a phone or tablet.
Standalones are wireless. It is helpful to understand, however, not all wireless VR headsets are standalones. Some systems beam information wirelessly from nearby PCs or consoles, and others use wired packs that clip to clothing or slip in a pocket. Some dreamers hope a true standalone with processor, graphics, display, storage and tracking all in the headband will offer additional modes to be more flexible.
Desktop based VR headsets
Desktop headsets, both non-tethered and tethered headsets (currently the most common) such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR headsets provide a more immersive experience at a higher price point. Most of these headsets are tethered with cables form the headset to an external piece of hardware to power the headset.
The dedicated display, use of built-in motion sensors and an external camera tracker, drastically improves both image and sound quality, as well as providing head tracking.
The trade-off, besides the clunky cables, is the price. The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400, and with the Rift and the Vive, you’ll need a powerful PC to run them, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4.
VR devices have their own app stores, similar to smartphone app stores, where you can browse and download games and apps. Some of these stores are accessed using the device itself, while others – Gear VR and Oculus stores, for example – can be browsed on your computer.
For more about VR app stores, read Where to Find the Best VR Apps.
Sony PS VR
Samsung Gear VR
Read a list of all the VR Headsets under development.
Aside from the headset, there are plenty of accessories and peripherals coming into the market.
There are already plenty of controllers on the market, mostly for mobile VR (as non-mobile VR now includes its own controllers). These controllers include STEM System, Control VR and iMotion. Research developer support for each device to work out if it’s compatible with your system before buying.
Ultrahaptics are using ultrasound to project sensations onto a hand.
Smell devices are being developed to add a 4th sense to virtual reality. Tokyo based Vaqso has designed an odour emitting attachment for VR headsets. About the size and shape of a candy bar, the device has space for up to three different odours and comes with a fan that can change the intensity of the smell based on what is happening on the screen.
There is also the OSVR project by gaming hardware company Razer, which is trying to create open standards around VR so that people can mix and match different headsets and accessories.
OSVR is a movement founded to create a universal open source VR ecosystem for technologies across different brands and companies. Giving you the freedom to combine different brands of HMDs and Controllers to experience VR the way they want to.
The most common VR experience come from downloading an app or software from an app store. Once the download has completed, you can run it in a compatible VR headset. For those who don’t want to wait for a (usually) huge initial download, web-based VR could be the future. It’s still in early development but enables users to access VR through the browser, just like a webpage.
Most of the high end VR experiences require a large download up front. These can be gigabytes in size and take several minutes to download. Once the app has download, typically form an app store such as the Oculus Store or Google Play, the experience is playable with a VR headset specific to that app.
WebVR brings virtual reality to the web, making it easier for anyone to create, enjoy, and share VR experiences. With WebVR, you can open up a browser and get into VR just by clicking a link, no matter what device you have.
Popular frameworks for building WebVR experiences include:
Example WebVR experiences
For more examples, check out the Google experiments WebVR page.
There are many applications of VR, from engineering to entertainment to recruitment. It’s best known currently for gaming, however there are plenty of other useful application of virtual reality:
VR allows engineers and designers to experiment easily with the look and build of a vehicle before commissioning expensive prototypes. Brands such as BMW and Jaguar Land Rover already use VR to hold early design and engineering reviews to check the visual design and object obscuration of the vehicle.
JLR are using VR to hold engineering reviews earlier in the vehicle development process.
Healthcare is one of the industries where VR could have the most significant impact. Healthcare professionals can now use virtual models to prepare them for working on a real body and VR has even been used as pain relief for burns patients.
Like many new technologies, gaming is leading the way with sales and investment. Several games have already made over a million dollars and huge multimillion dollar deals between headset makers and gaming studios are being completed.
Robo Recall is an action-packed VR first-person shooter.
The problem with online shopping is that we can’t try on the clothes we want before we buy them, which results in us buying two sizes and sending one back, or ordering one size and praying it fits your shape and size.
Imagine being able to try your holiday before you buy it. That’s exactly what the future could hold. The industry is taking the first steps to enabling you to go on guided virtual tours of hotels, restaurants and tourist landmarks.
You can look round properties from the comfort of your [existing] home - no estate agent or sacrificing your weekend needed. This allows people to explore houses online and then only view the ones you’re most likely to love in person.
Matterport 3D camera produces realistic scanning of buildings which you can then visit in VR.
VR is gradually changing the way that architects design and experiment with their work. VR makes it possible to see not just what a building or space will look like but how it will feel. For home-owners, they can experience the space before it is physically built and make real-time changes, which saves the customer and the architect time and money.
You can now play multiplayer poker in VR with CasinoVR. It’s just like being in a real casino where you can talk to other players and read their body language. You can’t win real money yet but you still get the thrill of winning (or losing).
The L&D market is beginning to open up to VR, with companies such as VirtualSpeech providing VR training for communication and business skills. They combine VR apps with Web VR and work with companies to integrate their corporate training into current CMS. This makes training more accessible, cheaper, and increases learning retention levels.
Learn and practice communication skills with VirtualSpeech.
Lloyds Banking Group have introduced a VR exercise to assess graduates for its 2017 intake. In the future, virtual environments could replace assessment days and interviews themselves, saving on cost and time for both the employer and the potential employee.
VR is being used in the entertainment industry to heighten experiences with 360 films (JauntVR) and increase your emotional connection with them and/or the characters. Disney Movies VR, for example, takes the user to red carpet events and to an interview with ‘The Jungle Book’ cast.
VR could revolutionise education by enabling students to learn in an immersive, experiential way. Unimersiv have apps that allow users to take a tour of Ancient Rome, explore the human brain, board the Titanic, and learn about Stonehenge.
Explore Ancient Rome in VR with Unimersiv.
The way that we watch sports is already changing, with several VR companies specialising in watching live sports events. With NextVR, you can watch the NBA, NFL, and other events and LiveLikeVR enables broadcasters and sports teams to deliver live sports viewing experiences on mobile VR.
With VR, you don’t just create life-size artwork - you can be in it. Seriously, you can actually step into your image and come out the other side. The most well-known tool for creating art in VR is Tiltbrush and it’s amazing what some people have managed to paint in it.
Tiltbrush lets you create art in VR.
Selecting your ticket for an event could become a whole lot easier thanks to companies such as Rukkus. They’re a VR ticket vendor that allow users to see their seat via VR before they buy their tickets so they can see the view they would have before they decide to buy.
With the rise in popularity for wellness and meditation, it’s not surprising that there are VR apps that enable users to immerse themselves in a meditative space. Guided Meditation VR is one of the most popular and surrounds the user with beautiful 360 images while they listen to soothing music and a guided meditation.
There are several players already building social communities in the VR space, such as High Fidelity, Facebook Spaces, AltspaceVR, Oculus Rooms and Parties, and VRChat. Altspace is one of the most popular and holds regular community-created meetups on topics from ‘Mingle and Chill’ to ‘Boss Monster’ to ‘Lia’s birthday drawing party’.
Party inside High Fidelity which can host multiple players.
One of the best things about the emergence of VR is its ability to evoke empathy. This makes it extremely valuable to charities as it can be used to increase understanding of an issue.
Marketing is becoming more and more about how companies make customers feel so using VR is a natural extension. Coca-Cola was one of the first companies to try out virtual experiences in their marketing when they transformed their Christmas advert into VR in Poland.
Many real-life hobbies are available in VR, and the immersive experience makes them all the more enjoyable and accessible. If you’re a fan of cultural activities, you can visit museums such as the Natural History Museum in London or, if you’re more of a thrill-seeker, there’s even a VR theme park opening in China.
VR theme park in China from SLQJ.
You can now watch news stories and documentaries in VR. The New York Times has already entered this space, and it’s only a matter of time before other media outlets join them. In the NYTVR app, you can experience stories rather than just listen to them, as if you were standing opposite the journalist where the story is happening.
Wherever it is too dangerous, expensive or impractical to do something in reality, virtual reality is the answer. From trainee fighter pilots to medical applications trainee surgeons, virtual reality allows us to take virtual risks in order to gain real world experience. As the cost of virtual reality goes down and it becomes more mainstream you can expect more serious uses, such as education or productivity applications, to come to the fore.
The cameras and editing software needed to film and then stitch together VR footage are complex and expensive. At €23,500, Nokia’s OZO+ camera is out of most people’s price range but demonstrates some of the highest quality 360 videos that can be created, and is being used by professional film-makers.
More affordable is Samsung’s Gear 360 spherical camera, which costs around $100, and which has front and rear lenses to capture 180-degree shots both horizontally and vertically to create panoramic video or photo. It’s a great starting point for VR – here is an example 360 video of London we created using it.
The Samsung Gear 360 camera, with both front and rear lenses.
There are a number of other 360-degree cameras available, like the Ricoh Theta S, Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Action Cam, LG 360 Cam, Giroptic 360cam and the Vuze Camera.
The terms “360” and “virtual reality” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. The 360-degree photos and videos are panoramic pictures and videos that have been stitched together, so you can turn your head to look around you. But these aren’t virtual worlds: you don’t have free movement to explore them as you do in full virtual reality experiences.
All VR devices offer a mixture of both, however: you can watch 360 videos or explore virtual worlds with HTC Vive or Google Cardboard.
Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) and Unity are two of the most popular game engines available to create VR experiences. While some developers choose to create their apps natively without the use of either of these, the majority of VR projects use one or the other.
UE4 typically has a higher quality output, at the expense of ease of use. However, over time the difference between the two is minimal and the choice between the two comes down to preference.
It’s worth noting they have slightly different business models: Unity charges a yearly fee for their Pro version, whereas UE4 charges 5% of gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product per calendar quarter.
VR applications built with UE4:
VR applications built with Unity:
Like any technology, virtual reality has both good and bad points. How many of us would rather have a complex brain operation carried out by a surgeon trained in VR, compared to someone who has merely read books or watched over the shoulders of their peers? How many of us would rather practice our driving on a car simulator before we set foot on the road?
The technology has been improving rapidly over the last few years and will continue to do so. However, due to the complexity involved in creating high quality VR content, there isn’t too much of it around. This will change as headset sales increase and the customer market size increases, giving greater incentive for content creators to produce engaging experiences.
We can expect to see many more innovative uses for the technology in the future as we prepare for a whole new virtual world of entertainment, information and communication, as engineers, developers, games designers and film-makers explore the medium and its new creative potential.