What is VR?

While you may think VR and “virtual reality” as science fiction terms, modern computers and high definition screens have made immersive experiences not only possible but fun! We now have a variety of equipment types that can take you from this reality into a new world, an exciting simulated environment.


What is VR, though?

Virtual reality is basically a simulation of a different reality using various technologies to give information to our brains. It works like this: we experience reality through our senses, and VR feeds those senses information that makes us think we’re somewhere else.

VR systems need to have lots of different parts to provide our brains with the proper stimuli, including:

  • Head Mounted Display (HMD) – This is the main component of the VR system, and the one most people are familiar with. The HMD is the visual component, with a screen mounted inside goggles that have straps to hold them on.
  • Speakers – These can be on the headset or in the environment. The VR software on the computer syncs sounds to the video and the user’s movements. Good quality sound can make or break a VR experience.
  • Manual Components (3D Controllers or gloves) – These allow the user to interact with the environment. They usually contain sensors so that the software can track the user’s movements, but they may also have triggers or buttons to allow for more interactivity.
  • Position and Movement Tracker – Positional tracking is an advanced technology that allows a camera to track the movement of a sensor. The software gets this tracking information and makes the virtual environment to react to your movements. VR systems include these sensors on the headset as well as in gloves or other components.
  • Computer – The computer is the brain of the VR system, as it gets information from all the other components and uses that to create the virtual environment in real time. It coordinates the video, audio, and movement.

All these parts work together to tell your brain that you’re walking through a forest, for example, slaying a dragon, or painting a picture.


How is this even possible?

Let’s look at how all these different VR components work together to create that immersive experience.

First, the visuals are more complicated than having a simple screen attached to your face like glasses. Humans have a pretty big field of vision (called FOV in VR circles), about 180 degrees actually! VR screens need to provide that peripheral vision so we believe the environment is real. The screens also need to mimic how our eyes see. This means that the screen refresh rate needs to be high enough that we don’t get motion sickness. Luckily, new VR units have high refresh rates and large screens for full FOV video.

The computer is very important in coordinating the video, audio, and motion tracking. Everything has to be timed perfectly so that when you grip something in the virtual reality, for example, you can move that thing around. The computer has kind of a refresh rate too, called latency, which is the time it takes for the environment to respond to what you do. So if you turn your head, the computer responds by shifting the video display in real time. The advanced computing power available these days means that new VR systems have low latency too, responding in milliseconds to your movements.    

To get the most out of a VR experience, you must have the latest technology. High-end VR systems like the HTC Vive make use of new developments in computer programming, screen resolution, position tracking, and audio mixing to give your brain a unique experience. Better processing speed in today’s VR systems also means that you reduce the chance of motion sickness because everything is perfectly timed. If you’ve been thinking of exploring VR to expand your horizons, work out your brain, or even just for fun, now is the time to start!