Virtual reality, or VR, is the latest buzzword in the wonderful world of technology. Don't be fooled into thinking it is a new technology though, it isn't, but that's not to say it isn't something to get excited about.
For those who are wondering what on earth VR is and why you should be getting your knickers or pants in a twist over it, you've come to the right place.
We are about to tell you what virtual reality is, how it works and what devices there are currently out there using this wonderful technology that you should make it your business to know about.
What is virtual reality (VR)?
First things first, you're going to need to know what VR actually is. The clue is in the name - it's the experience of a world that doesn't actually exist. We aren't talking about getting yourself lost in a book or daydreaming about a photo or painting however, even if these technically are also experiencing some sort of virtual reality.
The virtual reality we are talking about is one created by computers that allows you to experience and interact with a 3D world that isn't real by putting on a head-mounted display and some form of input tracking. The display will typically be split between your eyes, creating a stereoscopic 3D effect with stereo sound, and together with the technology and the input tracking, it will create an immersive, believable experience, allowing you to explore the virtual world being generated by the computer.
VR will make you feel like you are there mentally and physically. You turn your head and the world turns with you so the illusion created by whatever world you are in is never lost.
Watch a film in the cinema and the split-second fear you might feel when a devastating earthquake happens on screen will very quickly disappear if you turn your head to see the person next to you munching away on their popcorn. Films and books take you to different fictional worlds, but they are not worlds you change based on your actions.
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There are various kinds of virtual reality from fully immersive and non-immersive to collaborative and web-based. The VR everyone is excited about is the fully-immersive variation because this is the explorable and interactive 3D computer-created world that can take you to places reality might not allow for, be that walking on Mars or driving around the mountains in a sports car.
Where did virtual reality come from?
VR as we know it today has been kicking around for decades. To give you an idea, the first head-mounted display wasn't an Oculus Rift, even though this is the device that arguably drove the VR renaissance, it was a device called Headsight that was created in the 1960s. But there were non-digital predecessors, all the way from 360-degree paintings that had the same aim: to take your experience to another place. VR is the wise guy in tech and not just because it is old.
The technology has been used for all sorts of things over its 200 years from science and medicine to training pilots and helping architects present their latest skyscraper, allowing people to experience walking through it before a brick has been laid.
Yes, the current focus might be largely on gaming, but that's not all that VR is good for. VR has plenty of applications and this is only likely to expand as the technology develops further.
How does virtual reality work?
The virtual reality we have been referring to in this feature typically requires some form of a head-mounted display, a computer, smartphone or console that creates the 3D world and some form of input tracking, which could be hand tracking, voice or head.
There are currently a number of head-mounted displays all using this set-up including Oculus Rift, which is the system Facebook bought in a deal worth $2 billion in 2014, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR and more besides.
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As we mentioned, some of the VR devices contain a display, splitting the feed for each eye. In these cases, a cable (usually HDMI) will transfer the video from your PC or console to the screen(s) in front of your eyes. Other more affordable VR devices make use of your smartphone to display VR content. There are also standalone, wire-free devices appearing like the Oculus Go and the newer Oculus Quest which offer entry to mid-level VR experiences without the need for an expensive smartphone or gaming PC to power them.
That's only part of the story though as there is plenty more that goes into creating the fully immersive experience many companies in this field are aiming for. For example, there are lenses for reshaping images into a stereoscopic 3D image, while 100 or 110-degree field of views are on board to ensure whichever way you look, the world created follows you. A high frame rate (minimum of 60fps) is also important to ensure the world reacts as it would in reality in order for the illusion to remain intact.
In terms of input tracking, there are several variations, all of which contribute to creating this fully-immersive world, whether that's individually or in a combination of forms. Different devices use different components in order to achieve this, ranging from sensors and LEDs to wireless controllers.
For example, Sony PlayStation VR offers 360-degree head tracking by monitoring signals from the nine LED lights around the headset with a PS4 camera. When it comes to head tracking, low latency is a must to ensure there is minimal lag between you turning your head and the world you're experiencing responding. Some devices are better at this than others, with Oculus Rift being one of the better models.
The latest and greatest Oculus headset - the Oculus Rift S - has a lot of the tracking built into the device itself, with five different sensors used to track the movement of your body and the controllers within the VR space.
Motion tracking has been seen in a variety of forms from smart gloves to the likes of Oculus Touch, Valve's Lighthouse and HTC's controllers for its Vive headset. Each of these things work slightly differently but the idea is to ensure you feel as though you are using your hands during your experience. We won't go into the ins and outs, but a plethora of sensors are involved, as well as lasers emitted from base stations in some cases, all of which helps with the detection the precise position of your head and hands.
Accurate tracking of headset and hand movements also incorporates something called six degrees of freedom (6DoF) tracking. This allows the tech to monitor your movement within the real world and translate that into the virtual game world accurately. This tracking ensures that any movement you make - backwards, forwards, up and down and side to side is tracked properly to ensure the most immersive experience. For some of the more intense games where physical actions are a big part of the game this tracking is essential. VR boxing is a perfect example as the virtual reality headset needs to see when you duck to avoid a punch or swing your own to in return.
In terms of the most popular head-mounted displays that are currently being talked about, that's pretty much all that's involved. But there are other things that could add to the VR experience. One of them is eye tracking. The benefit of eye tracking would be to deliver a more realistic depth of field, resulting in a more true-to-reality experience.
This sort of enhancement is already starting to come to market. The HTC Vive Pro Eye, for example, has eye-tracking built-in and allows you to do things like control menus and interact with the virtual world with just the movement of your eye.
Another is hand tracking. Companies are working on new devices to allow for accurate tracking of hand and finger movement within games. This tech could remove the need for controllers in the future and lead to much more immersive gaming experiences. Leap Motion is one such gadget that can be purchased as an upgrade for the HTC Vive. It's in the early stages but shows the powerful potential of future technology.
Being able to see your hands and watched them being accurately tracked within a VR environment is something pretty special. There are other technologies being developed to make that experience more tactile too. When you can see and feel what you're interacting with, the experiences will become all the more real.
These sort of improvements are also being built into the latest and greatest flagship headsets. The Valve Index, for example, has new and improved controllers that allow a more natural grip while playing and allow games to track each of your fingers. It's also built with an expansion slot where future upgrades could be mounted - including something like the Leap Motion controller for controller-free finger tracking.
Why is everyone talking about VR?
VR is constantly changing and improving. We're seeing the prices of headsets falling and even the advent of new headsets being released. Technology improvements like wireless adapters and standalone VR headsets is making the technology more and more accessible. As the technology improves, more game developers are getting involved too. Meaning there are more games to play and more to get excited about.
Alongside VR, both Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality technologies are coming on in leaps and bounds. These provide interesting access to content that might even make its way into the workplace too. The future is certainly going to be interesting.