The Complete Guide to Virtual Reality


Updated March 19, 2021 - Dom Barnard

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:

Current age of virtual reality

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.

Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign

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, while Facebook and YouTube are creating 360-degree videos.

What is virtual reality?

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 4 characteristics:

  • Believable: You feel like you're in your virtual world through what you see and hear.
  • Immersive: As you move your head around, what you see changes as well, just as it would in real life.
  • Computer-generated: VR worlds are usually created with complex 3D computer graphics that change in real time as we move.
  • Interactive: You can interact with different objects in the scene, whether it’s pressing a button or opening a door.

If you're interested, this article covers a longer definition of VR

VR Headsets

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.

Mobile vs PC vs Standalone

Virtual reality headsets fit into three broad categories, mobile, PC or standalone, each with their pros and cons.


Mobile VR headsets

Mobile VR headset

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.

Examples:

  • Daydream View
  • Gear VR
  • Merge VR

Standalone headsets

Standalone VR headset

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 headset 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.

Examples:

  • Oculus Quest / Quest 2
  • Pico Neo 2
  • Vive Focus

PC based VR headsets

PC VR headset

PC 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 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 at the minimum.

Examples:

  • Vive Cosmos
  • Oculus Rift
  • HP Reverb G2
  • PlayStation VR

VR Apps

Best VR apps and where to find them

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 Oculus and Steam stores, for example – can be browsed on your computer.


Popular VR Headsets

PlayStation VR

Sony PS VR
  • The Sony PlayStation VR headset brings powerful, compelling virtual reality, with motion control support, to the PlayStation 4.
  • Cost: ~$400
  • App store: PlayStation Catalog

VIVE Series

HTC Vive
  • The HTC Vive delivers precise, 360-degree headset tracking, realistic graphics, directional audio and HD haptic feedback for action in the virtual world.
  • Cost: ~$400-600, you'll also need a powerful PC
  • App store: Steam or Viveport

Oculus Rift S

Oculus Rift S
  • The Oculus Rift S is a powerful, PC-tethered VR headset that's even more appealing now thanks a lower price and the inclusion of Oculus Touch motion controllers.
  • Cost: ~$400-600, you'll also need a powerful PC
  • App store: Oculus Store

Merge VR

Merge VR
  • Merge VR is high end VR headset, for both Android and iPhone VR apps. The marshmallow-soft material is comfortable, durable and cleanable.
  • Cost: ~$50
  • App store: Google Play, Apple App store

Oculus Quest 2

Oculus Quest 2
  • Oculus Quest 2 is an advanced all-in-one VR system yet. Explore an expansive library of games and immersive experiences with unparalleled freedom.
  • Cost: $300
  • App store: Oculus Store

Pico Neo 2

Pico Neo 2 headset
  • With 4K resolution, comfort, enterprise functionality, world-leading eye tracking and spatial stereo speakers, the Pico Neo 2 is built with business in mind.
  • Cost: ~$650
  • App store: Pico Store

Accessories for the VR headset

Aside from the headset, there are plenty of accessories and peripherals coming into the market.

Controllers

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 and iMotion. Research developer support for each device to work out if it’s compatible with your system before buying.

VR hand controllers for Vive and Oculus

Hand tracking

Companies such as Ultrahaptics are using infra-red and ultrasound to detect hand movement without needing to hold onto a controller.

Ultrahaptics technology for VR applications

Ultrahaptics are using ultrasound to project sensations onto a hand.


Smell

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.

Using smell senses while in VR

Motion Sickness

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.

Motion Sickness in VR

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:


Types of virtual reality

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.

App-based

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 from an app store such as the Oculus Store or Google Play, the experience is playable with a VR headset specific to that app.

Web-based (WebVR)

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.

WebVR example using A-Frame

WebVR is built using JavaScript that accesses the WebGL platform built into modern browsers through the HTML5 Canvas element. WebGL allows browsers low-level access to your machine’s GPU for more advanced graphics rendering.

Popular frameworks for building WebVR experiences include:

  • A-Frame – entity-component WebVR framework, built on top of three.js
  • Babylon.js – WebGL engine, alternative to three.js
  • three.js – create and display animated 3D computer graphics in a web browser using WebGL
  • Vizor – easy WebVR content-creation tool & hosting service
  • Hologram – easy-to-use macOS native application, built on top of A-Frame
  • PlayCanvas – powerful WebGL 3D game engine with a custom WebGL engine, entity-component framework, and hosting service

Example WebVR experiences

For more examples, check out the Google experiments WebVR page.

Applications of VR

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:

  • Automotive industry
  • Healthcare
  • Gaming
  • Retail
  • Architecture
  • Education
  • Sports
  • Art and design
  • Well-being
  • Charity

Read about 21 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.

How do you create VR experiences?

Filming 360 videos

The cameras and editing software needed to film and then stitch together VR footage are complex and expensive.

Affordable cameras include the Samsung’s Gear 360 spherical camera. It costs around $100, has front and rear lenses to capture 180 / 360 degree shots both horizontally and vertically to create a panoramic video or photo.

Here are some examples of 360 degree filmed videos: 360 on YouTube

Samsung Gear 360 camera

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 and the Vuze Camera.

360 vs virtual reality

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.


Unity vs. Unreal Engines

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% royalties when you monetize your game and your lifetime gross revenues exceed $1,000,000 USD.

VR applications built with UE4:

VR applications built with Unity:

Pros and cons

Like any technology, virtual reality has both good and bad parts to it. 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 get on the road?

Pros

  • Reduce expenses by replacing expensive training with VR
  • Experiences are more immersive than with traditional 2D screens
  • Big companies backing VR, including Facebook, Google, Samsung, Microsoft and Sony
  • Range of headset costs to suit needs and budgets, from $10-700
  • Experiential learning increases user retention

Cons

  • Headset segmentation (mobile vs non-mobile) and app store segmentation
  • Exclusivity of games and experiences, headset manufacturers tie developers into their ecosystem
  • Small number of high quality experiences
  • Mainstream adoption has been slow
  • Some people feel sick after using VR

Visit here and here for a more detailed analysis of the pros and cons.

Virtual reality vs augmented reality

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.

Future of VR

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.