Virtual reality (VR for short) refers to a computer-generated virtual environment that we can interact with as if it were real. Through the use of 3D graphics, stereo audio, and other sensory feedback, VR tricks our minds into thinking that a simulated environment truly exists.
VR has been a topic of researchers, visionaries, and computer experts for nearly a century. However, improvements in modern technology have made true VR is commercially viable for the first time in history. For less than the cost of a high-end smartphone, anyone can experience fully immersive VR environments from their own home. VR has applications from gaming and media to education, arts, engineering, architecture, marketing, and training.
Virtual Reality Headsets
Today, VR typically comes in the form of headsets. VR headsets sit on the wearer’s head and enclose their eyes in front of a small screen similar to goggles. Headsets also have headphones or small speakers to project sound from the virtual environment. Modern VR headsets also use gyroscopes, accelerometers, and even eye trackers to track the position and orientation of the wearer’s head and body. This lets the wearer look and moves around the virtual world by tilting their head and moving their eyes.
One of the first fully immersive commercially available VR experiences was the Oculus Rift, developed by Oculus VR. The Rift was an early proof of concept for several now-common headset technologies such as high-resolution displays, integrated headphones, and head tracking. Over the course of its development, companies like Oculus VR pioneered techniques that made VR increasingly immersive. This included stereoscopic screen; faster, smoother displays; binaural audio; and the ability to map physical spaces to virtual spaces.
Since the Rift’s prototype release in 2013, several companies have jumped into VR development including Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, and Samsung. The growing VR market is expected to reach $21.5 billion by 2020. No longer the domain of science fiction authors, VR is here, and it’s becoming a part of our everyday lives.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
A concept similar to VR is augmented reality or AR. AR is a type of VR that creates a semi-virtual environment layered on top of the real world. As the name implies, it augments the real world instead of replacing it, allowing the user to interact with reality while also interacting with virtual objects. It’s an enhancement, rather than a substitute, to the real world.
One popular use of AR today is mobile phones. Since almost all phones have built-in cameras, AR apps can use the camera to scan the real world and overlay an image on top of it. Pokémon Go uses this technique to place virtual monsters in streets, lakes, sidewalks, and in shops. While it wasn’t the first app to use AR, its accessibility and brand appeal earned developer Niantic $200 million in revenue just one month after launch.
Types of Virtual Environments
There are different types of VR environments depending on how much of the world is simulated. This is known as the immersion level, and while there is no definite measure, there are ways of determining how immersive a VR environment is.
Non-immersive VR is somewhat of a misnomer, as these environments are not true VR. Non-immersive environments are distinctly separate from the physical world and engage only one or two senses at a time. We use non-immersive environments everyday, such as desktop and laptop computers to mobile phones. While these systems provide visual and auditory stimuli, they lack the illusion of VR since we never feel like we’re actually inside of the environment.
Semi-immersive VR project a virtual environment onto the real world. These are closer to AR, since they supplement reality instead of replacing it. In this type of environment, users can perform actions in the real world that directly affect the virtual world. A common example is a flight simulator, where users interact with physical objects to create an outcome in a completely virtual environment.
Fully-Immersive VR environments provide complete isolation from the real world. While they may not engage all of the user’s senses at once, they engage enough to make it feel as if the user is truly in the virtual world. Modern VR headsets are considered fully immersive since they provide enough realistic stimuli to convince the brain that it the virtual world is actually real.
The Bottom Line
While we’re not quite at the level of Star Trek’s holodecks, we’re seeing the beginning of a new form of interactive entertainment. $17.8 million is expected to be spent on VR and AR in 2018 alone, with businesses leading consumers in adoption. As this increases, we’ll start to see more forms of VR and AR integrate into everyday life.
It’s hard to understand the impact of VR just by reading about it. To truly understand its potential, you’ll have to see it for yourself.