What is Virtual Reality?



The Definition of what is virtual reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is the end result of various computer technologies being used to create a fully immersive environment with the ultimate goal of making the player believe that what they are seeing is just as real as the physical world in which we all live. But to achieve this, several important pieces have to come together perfectly, just like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, in order for the VR to truly work.

First, all objects have to be appear three-dimensional and be life-sized. They always need to be displayed from the perspective of the player and to allow meaningful interaction. The second piece of the VR puzzle has do to with tracking movements, the most important being eye- and head movements. It is vital that the player is allowed to not only move their eyes, but their entire head and the software should track those movements and adjust the view accordingly. Speed and low latency are of a paramount importance here: even a delay of a few dozen milliseconds can not only take you out of the experience, it can cause motion sickness. Apart from eye- and head tracking, the Virtual Reality equipment can also track your hands and skeletal structure for even more sophisticated in-game movements and enhanced object interactions.

virtuix omni at gdc
virtuix omni at gdc

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The quality of VR

When it comes to the level of immersion a VR system can offer, there are two factors that need to be considered: the number of senses being stimulated and the quality of that stimulation. Basically you can achieve higher immersion levels by stimulating as many of the senses as possible while providing each sense with a complex and highly detailed stimulation.

Although all five senses have been tapped at some point or another, modern VR systems focus on two of them – sight and hearing – through the use of goggles and headphones.

How it works

Even though Virtual Reality system manufacturers might use components that are unique and not found in competing products, nearly all systems use the same types of parts. So let’s take a look at what’s inside one of those VR systems.


The most important piece of equipment is the Head-Mounted Display (HMD). An HMD usually looks like a helmet or ski goggles which have supports and bands that wrap around your head for stability and comfort. In most cases the HMD covers your entire field of view when you put it on so no light – and none of your physical reality – can distract you from your experience. Facing each of your eyes you have a high-resolution display, usually an LCD or AMOLED. The size and shape of the display determines your field of view. Some headsets can accommodate users wearing glasses by pushing those displays further back, making enough room for the player. Unfortunately this negatively impacts the field of view and narrows it. Earlier we mentioned that in order for a VR to be truly immersive the player needs to perceive their environment in 3D. This is accomplished by feeding images that are slightly off from one another to the two screens, creating a stereoscopic effect and the feeling of depth.

Head tracking

The Head-Mounted Display also houses an array of motion tracking sensors that are responsible for detecting even the slightest head movements and acting accordingly. Those sensors typically include a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a magnetometer. Since precision is of the highest importance, many of those sensors measure changes in player orientation up to 1000 times a second.


Sound also plays a very important role in VR systems. In most cases either wired or wireless headphones are worn that produce 3D sounds in accordance with the virtual environment.

Body tracking

While looking around is all well and good, most systems also allow some level of freedom to move in the virtual environment. This is achieved by using an external camera that tracks your body as a whole. Small infrared emitters can also be used in conjunction with an external camera for an even more precise body detection.

Perception Neuron Motion Capture
Perception Neuron Motion Capture

Hand tracking

Some systems also offer hand tracking by having the player use a motion-aware controller similar to the Wii Remote. Older virtual reality systems also employed gloves that may additionally have haptic feedback engines. In order to make the experience even more realistic or immersive, developers are creating haptic gloves, which are designed to give you physical feedback so that you actually feel what you see on screen. 

Processing units

Currently all VR headsets depend on another computing system for processing motion data and rendering the virtual world. In most cases this is either a PC, a game console or a smartphone.

Game Controllers

Since VR setups can currently only track short-range movements, you need to use a game controller to move your character across long distances.

Virtual Reality in the Living Room

Let’s take a brief look at a few of the more promising VR companies and their respective products:

Oculus Rift

Developed by gaming and VR enthusiast Palmer Luckey in 2012 and acquired by Facebook for two billion dollars in 2014, the Oculus Rift is the first feasible VR headset in recent history. It is currently the only headset available for purchase for $350, albeit as a developer testing unit. The Rift uses a desktop or a laptop running Windows, OS X or Linux to provide the processing power. As far as game availability goes, there are a handful out there and many more being developed and ported.

Oculus Rift button

Project Morpheus

Sony’s Project Morpheus is in many ways comparable to the Oculus Rift – both in terms of hardware specs and in functionality. Where the two products start to differentiate is in their current availability.  Project Morpheus is not available to the public, even in developer form. As you might expect, Sony’s VR system is powered by the PlayStation 4.

Project Morpheus button

Honorable mentions

The Sulon Cortex, I Am Cardboard and the Seebright are both Virtual Reality headsets that use your smartphone’s processing power to project their interfaces. Since a smartphone’s processor is all the power they’ve got, the games developed for those systems will pale in comparison to the Rift and Project Morpheus.

I Am Cardboard button

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