Virtual Reality

What is Virtual Reality and How does it work?

July 15, 2020
A man using a Virtual Reality headset which lids up a holographic display in front of him

Imagine you could be transported into another world different from yours, but looks just as real without leaving your location? This exactly what virtual reality or VR for short as set out to do. Virtual reality is a digitally generated 3D environment designed to fool your sight and hearing (and probably more in the future) into thinking you’re somewhere else.  To experience a virtual world, you need a VR headset. When you put on a VR headset and it is turned on, you are immediately transported to a different world, not physically of course.

The reason a VR experience looks so real is that it doesn’t just show you two-dimensional images like on a regular screen. What you see on a screen depends on where you are in space and where your head is facing. This is usually referred to as six degrees of freedom, three directional movements, and three positional axes. So just like in the real world, you can move up and down, left and right, and front and back. You can also move your body in the three-dimensional plane.

Although the concept of virtual reality has been around as far back as the 1950s it only began to make waves in 2016 when it was made available to consumers by Oculus and HTC. Ever since then, several other companies have come up with VR headsets making improvements after improvements to ensure their users experience totally immersive virtual worlds. There are currently about three types of VR headsets in the market; standalone VR headsets, PC or console-based VR headsets, and mobile-based VR headsets.


Standalone VR Headsets

These are VR headsets that have everything needed for a VR experience included in the headset. This includes the battery, processor, screen, memory, storage, sensors, and so on.

PC or console-based VR Headsets

A PC or console-based VR headset only has the necessary sensor it requires alongside the screen. It requires an external device like a PC or a console to power it. It also rarely comes with a battery and is instead connected to an external power source.

Mobile-based VR headsets

Mobile-based VR headsets aren’t really ‘powered’ by mobile devices. They function mostly as a case for the phones. The phones are slotted into an area at the front of the headset. The phones function as the screen of the headset, they also contain the necessary sensors to make VR work. These sensors are mainly gyroscopes and accelerometers. These sensors only give three degrees of freedom though, unlike other headsets that come with additional sensors to give six degrees of freedom. And of course, a phone comes with a processor, memory, and storage.

How Virtual Reality Works?

Now, regardless of the VR headset being used, they all function in very similar ways. Modern VR headsets need about three things to function. First, the headset or head-mounted display (HMD) as it is sometimes called, a device to power the HMD, and a tracking system to allow for six degrees of freedom. Depending on the headset you are using, you might have the tracking system built into the HMD, or as a separate device.

Also, the device powering the HMD as you’ve seen above can be built-in in the case of standalone VR headsets or separate in the case of PC-based, console-based, and mobile-based VR headset. Inside the headsets is a screen that displays what you see when you wear a VR headset. Unlike a regular screen that just displays the content for you to watch, to simulate 3D visuals, the screen is divided into two and the same content is displayed on the two divisions with a slight offset in one of them. This tricks the user into thinking they’re looking at 3D objects.

That alone doesn’t give you a virtual experience though. To allow users to experience near virtual reality, every headset comes with sensors that can tell where your head is positioned and in what direction you’re moving. These sensors determine what would be displayed on the screen. For mobile-powered VR headsets, the sensors are in the phone.


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