The Complete Guide to Virtual Reality (VR)


Updated September 08, 2022 - 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, including the HTC Vive Focus, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and the Pico Neo headsets.

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 (not supported anymore)
  • Gear VR (not supported anymore)
  • 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 3
  • Vive Focus 3

PC / Console connected VR headsets

PC VR headset

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 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

HP Reverb G2

HP Reverb G2
  • The HP Reverb G2 was developed in collaboration with Valve and Microsoft, delivering a more immersive, comfortable, and compatible experience.
  • Cost: ~$550-650, you'll also need a powerful PC

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: $400
  • App store: Oculus Store

Pico Neo 3

Pico Neo 3 headset
  • With 4K resolution, comfort, enterprise functionality, world-leading eye tracking and spatial stereo speakers, the Pico Neo 3 is built with business in mind.
  • Cost: ~$650

Accessories for the VR headset

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

Hand controllers

Headsets like the Meta Quest 2, Pico Neo 3 and HP Reverb G2 come with two controllers, one for each hand. These controllers are tracked in 6DoF.

VR hand controllers for Vive and Oculus

Hand tracking

Meta's Quest 2 and original Quest both include native controller-free hand tracking which eliminates the need for the hand controllers in certain situations.

In addition, companies such as Ultraleap 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

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.


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:


Roomscale, Seated, and Standing

Roomscale, Seated, and Standing

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.


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.

Software to create VR 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:

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.