Virtual reality, or VR, is far from a new technology. It has been around for decades, giving users the chance to experience and interact in a world that is separate to their real, everyday lives.

This in turn has been used for a variety of reasons, from training pilots without them having to physically fly a plane until ready, to helping architects and investors experience a creation before it has been built.

Then, of course, there are games. Many, many games.

The technology has significantly developed over the last 20 years though and 2016 marks a very exciting time for virtual reality.

So this is your ultimate guide to VR. It will answer the most important questions surrounding virtual reality, as well as direct you around our VR content to help you find out more about the questions you're really interested in.

Virtual reality is an experience of a world that doesn't exist. It is most often a 3D world created by computers and is experienced and interacted with through a head-mounted display, and some form of input tracking.

The experience is immersive and believable. It enables the user to feel like he or she is part of the created world both visually, aurally and, in many cases, mentally. There are various kinds of virtual reality from immersive and non-immersive to collaborative and web-based.

It's the fully-immersive kind that is exciting though as this type of VR is the explorable and interactive 3D computer-created world that can take you to places reality might not allow for.

READ MORE What is VR? Virtual Reality explained

As we mentioned above, virtual reality (VR) gives you the ability to experience a different world from the one you live in. There has to be hardware and software involved for it to work and once you're in that computer-created 3D landscape, your focus will be entirely on that location until you remove the head-mounted display. VR is entirely virtual with no overlap into the real world.

Augmented reality on the other hand, or AR, is a computer-generated simulation of a 3D or 2D environment, which is superimposed onto the real world. It also needs both hardware and software to work but rather than give a virtual experience like VR, AR is a composite view of graphics and real objects that can add contextual layers of information.

With a VR experience, you could be on Mars driving a sports car, for example, while an AR experience could superimpose a Martian sitting next to you in your real sports car on Earth.

READ MORE What's the difference between VR and AR?

Pocket-lintOculus Rift-5

VR isn't a new technology as we said previously, but in the last couple of years, it has broken through some of the barriers that previously hindered it. This year is a particularly exciting one as many of the devices that have been in development for a while, like Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, are due to be released. That means the fully-immersive experience we have been talking about is one you'll soon be able to experience for yourself.

READ MORE Best VR headsets to buy in 2016, whatever your budget

There are plenty of options, which you can read about in our separate feature by clicking the link above, but the main ones that you'll hear about at present are the PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.

Sony's own PlayStation VR headset is coming "in the first half of 2016" and is a unique proposition as it will be the only device to work directly with a games console.

That effectively means that, of all the headsets available or in-bound, it is the most focused at gamers. It also has the potential of providing full VR thrills for a fraction of the price of contemporaries - not least because it works off a PlayStation 4 rather than an expensive, highly spec'ed PC.

READ MORE Sony PlayStation VR preview

Every time we've come in contact with an Oculus headset we've been very impressed. Even the earliest days, when the action was blurry and, even, nausea-inducing thanks to the low resolutions and low frame rates, the experiences still wowed.

Now the latest model, the Oculus Rift, is another world. Its 1080 x 1200 resolution per eye is superb - you soon forget that pixels exist. And everything runs very smoothly indeed.

READ MORE Oculus Rift preview

We've been wowed by HTC Vive. The demos we've played since our first experience in early 2015 show that it already has an advantage over rivals. Its Star Trek Holodeck capabilities - that allow you to walk around in the virtual experience - are incredible.

HTC Vive is hugely impressive and for any technology fan, something that needs to be experienced. It already offers the potential to go beyond its VR rivals, at least at launch.  However, that doesn't come without challenges in itself. Having a large playing area is a must if you want to use it to its fullest.

READ MORE HTC Vive preview

Google Cardboard is very much the cornerstone of mobile VR. It's cheap and easy to access which is vitally important. Cardboard doesn't compare to larger systems, but in some cases, we can see how there would be a crossover.

If you're a VR fan, or just VR curious, then Cardboard is a great place to start. In some cases you won't be blown away. In some cases you'll find it irritating that developers haven't embraced better navigation frameworks or offered higher quality video. But in other cases you'll be grabbed, immersed, entertained and educated.

READ MORE Google Cardboard review

The first time we slipped the Gear VR on and literally looked around a whole virtual galaxy, head-turning to take in what was to the side and behind, a part of us was impressed with the sheer spectacle. It's quite amazing.

The Gear VR isn't like the wires an' all plugged-in experience of Oculus Rift or others, it's somewhat more liberating thanks to the smartphone integration. But it's also less powerful, so not all the experiences a full headset can offer are available.

READ MORE Samsung Gear VR review


There are several places you can already find content to view through a virtual reality headset. YouTube, for example, has a rapidly growing collection of 360-degree videos on its online platform, which can be streamed through a phone and viewed on Google Cardboard, Gear VR or equivalent.

Facebook too has committed to host 360-degree images and videos, with users submitting their own thanks to a rising popularity in specialised cameras.

VR games and mobile apps can be bought through dedicated stores, depending on your device. For example, Samsung phones compatible with the Gear VR have their own storefront, where you can download content.

Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR will also each have their own virtual reality content stores or sections of existing stores when they are released.

Alongside games and 360-degree videos, virtual reality has often been utilised for marketing reasons.

Many companies, such as Shell, HBO and Audi, have created their own VR experiences in recent times to give a more immersive view of a product or service they are promoting at the time. The HBO experience, for example, placed the user inside a lift travelling to the top of the vast wall in Game of Thrones.

We expect to see much more of this kind of use in future, where you will be able to experience different aspects of products, even wander around virtual shopping malls, most likely from booths in public places and at events.

Another interesting use for VR is in existing theme parks. Alton Towers has recently announced a VR rollercoaster ride, Galactica. It combines the real-life thrills of a big dipper with a headset the rider wears that transports them into space.

READ MORE Could Alton Towers' physical and VR Galactica rollercoaster be the scariest ride ever?

There are different virtual reality headsets and hardware available to you no matter your budget.

Google Cardboard, for example, can be bought for as little as £10 and if you already own an Android smartphone or iPhone it is compatible with, you're laughing.

Then there is the opposite end of the scale. Although we are not sure how much the HTC Vive headset costs yet, the Oculus Rift is available on pre-order for £500. Then you need a top spec PC to run it on.

Full VR can be pricey.

If you aren't VR'd out yet, you can visit our virtual reality hub for all our VR content.