With virtual reality (VR), you can tour the universe in a spaceship, view a potential house before buying, perform a medical operation, practice a sales pitch and create 3D art, all from the comfort of your own home.
VR simulates different environments using a headset and motion sensors, and is being used in a wide range of applications, from education 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. He launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2012 and raised $2.4m, bringing VR into the public interest.
Two years later, 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, including the HTC Vive Focus, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and the Pico Neo headsets.
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.
If you're interested, this article covers a longer definition of VR.
The most important hardware with VR is the headset, a device similar a pair of goggles that goes over your eyes. This immerses you in the virtual world.
Virtual reality headsets fit into three broad categories, mobile, PC or standalone, each with their pros and cons.
Note: The main headset manufacturers have stopped development for Mobile VR headsets as they focus more on standalone 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 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.
Enjoy high-quality VR anywhere you want with no cables, phone, or PC. An all-in-one VR headset, or standalone headset, puts everything in the headset needed to convince you that you’re in another world. It is a single integrated piece of hardware, like a phone or tablet. Therefore, standalones headsets are wireless.
These headsets provide a more immersive experience at a higher price point. Most of these headsets are tethered with cables from the headset to an external piece of hardware to power the headset.
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 at the minimum.
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 – the Meta and Steam stores, for example – can be browsed on your computer.
Pico Neo 3
HP Reverb G2
Aside from the headset, there are plenty of accessories and peripherals.
Headsets like the Meta Quest, Pico Neo and HP Reverb G2 come with two controllers, one for each hand. These controllers are tracked in 6DoF.
Companies such as OVR Technology are developing scent technology for virtual reality.
Users testing out the device can try out demos like picking and smelling a virtual rose. When you pull the rose away, the smell instantly disappears instead of lingering like a perfume. That effect is due to the OVR hardware.
VR motion sickness happens when your brain receives conflicting signals about movement in the environment around you, and your body’s relation to it. In VR, this essentially means that if you are standing still and the virtual environment around you is moving, you disturb the brain’s equilibrium and you start to feel nauseous.
While nausea and dizziness are the most common symptoms of motion sickness in VR, like with other types of simulator sickness, there are other symptoms such as headaches, sweating, feeling tired, eye strain and a general lack of balance.
To learn more about what VR motion sickness is, what causes it, and how to minimise it so you can enjoy your favourite games and simulations, read this article:
There are 3 main types of movement and positioning tailored for each play area size: roomscale, seated, and standing.
With Roomscale VR, you set a boundary or play area and can move freely and physically around that area in the game. With these games, you can physically move around your space to interact with the simulated environment.
With Seated and Standing, the user stays roughly in the same place and uses different movement options (usually on the hand controller) to move instead of psychically moving through a space.
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:
Read about key industries that use VR: Applications of VR
Wherever it's 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 becomes more mainstream, you can expect more serious applications, such as ones for education and productivity.
Unreal Engine 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.
Unreal Engine 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 Unreal Engine charges 5% royalties when you monetize your game and your lifetime gross revenues exceed $1,000,000 USD.
VR applications built with Unreal Engine:
VR applications built with Unity:
Augmented Reality (AR) overlays digital elements on top of your live view of the physical surroundings, often by using the camera on a smartphone or lens on a headset. Examples of AR experiences include Snapchat lenses, Magic Leap and the Pokémon Go game.
VR completely immerses you in the virtual world and shuts out your physical surroundings. Using VR devices such as HTC Vive, Oculus Quest or Pico VR, users can be transported into a number of real-world and imagined environments.