What is VR?

Everything you need to know about virtual reality

Samsung Gear VR - inside view of the headset with lenses showing.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last half-decade, you’ve probably heard all the hullabaloo about virtual reality (VR). This new and exciting technology promises to elevate entertainment and user-experiences to the next level.

What is VR used for and why should you care?

This may surprise you; the idea for VR technology has been around since the 1950’s. Flight simulators, stereoscopic videos and interactive viewing have been in use for decades, but never really made it beyond aeronautics, the military or research labs.

3D has flirted with mainstream audiences since the 1980’s, and although graphics have improved significantly in the last 30 years, virtual technologies still lacked that all-important component – the immersive experience.

That’s now changed! Advancements in the technology nailed a solution and have subsequently catapulted VR into the mainstream. You can even access the magic of VR on your mobile through a simple, and low-cost VR device.

VR technology may have had a sluggish rise, but once Oculus Rift nailed the headsets, other electronics manufacturers took up the baton. Now the technology and the competition is in place, consumers can look forward to real-life experiences from anywhere.

And VR is branching out across industries. Gaming has been leading the way, and in recent years, companies across countless industries have really taken to VR technologies.

From here on in, you can expect to see VR making an appearance in, marketing, staff training programs, healthcare, fashion, sport, and ahem, porn.

To get the most benefit from VR for porn entertainment, you need to know exactly what you are investing in. And opportunities to get hold of VR headsets have been raining in over the last year.

But too much choice is confusing.

So, we’re here to set you straight. If you’re interested in buying VR equipment, or just want to know what VR is all about, this article separates the wheat from the chaff and tells you everything you need to know plus a little bit more.

What is VR and how does it work?

In a nutshell, VR is a technology that convinces the brain you’re having a real-life experience even when you’re not. So for example, you can go skydiving whilst lying on your bed. All that fun without any risk of danger.

Using VR involves donning a head-mounted display with built-in headphones. With the headset on, your sensory perception is shut off from the real world, and immersed in the virtual world.

The human mind cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Sounds and visuals processed by the brain create a perception, and the information is transmitted to the body.

The neural function you experience in the virtual world, therefore, makes your brain and body believe the experience you can see and hear is actually happening. This ultimately impacts on your emotions and makes you feel like you are actually living the experience.

What is VR technology?

To engage in fully immersive VR action you need premium headsets. The first-gen devices plug into your games console, computer or smart TV. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Sony PlayStation VR had been leading the way in terms of quality.

With these headsets, the visuals are sent from the source via an HDMI cable. For the most part, wearers won’t have any problems, but if you are playing an energetic game which involves a lot of movement, the cable can get in the way and disrupt the immersive experience.

Fortunately, manufacturers have found a quick-fix to this issue and standalone headsets are now emerging into the fray. The Oculus Go, HTC Vive Focus and Lenovo Mirage Solo are the pick of a small bunch but many more are expected to follow.

When you first put on the goggles, users need to adjust the LCD display so the distance between the eyes is matching. The lenses reshape the image for each eye individually and create a stereoscopic 3D image.

There is also VR for mobile which is less costly although not as good. Smartphone-based VR works slightly differently to premium headsets, although the idea is exactly the same. With VR for mobile, you attach your phone screen to the outside of the goggles.

Although there is a fair amount about, you can only watch content that has been specifically made from the VR accessory you purchase. For mobile VR you, therefore, have to download a corresponding app.

Gamers are spoilt for choice, whereas YouTube viewers and telly fans are better off with Google Daydream as they come with access to HBO Now.

If you want to try VR for mobile, Google’s Daydream and the Samsung Gear VR are among the elite entry-level-mid range VR experiences. There’s also a raft of alternative sub £50/$70 options produced by relatively unknown brands.

However, if you want to dip your toe in and try VR for mobile before investing in a pair of headsets, Google Cardboard is the best solution (if you can find a pair). They may be basic, but for £15/$15, it’s a minimal amount of spend to get your VR juices flowing.

What can you expect to experience with virtual reality?

The overarching idea of VR is to place users in a three-dimensional world. Some programs will even have 360-degree vision. However, 360 is unnecessary most of the time so most applications are around 100-110 degrees.

Users not only sense they are in a three-dimensional world – you can also interact with objects or other people/characters. Sensors on the headsets track your movements and mimic actions and interactions from the real world in the virtual world.

Furthermore, the headsets influence what you see and hear. The result is a fully immersive experience whereby users feel a sense of presence. Essentially, your mind is being tricked into thinking something is happening even when it’s not.

The deep mental engagement is what makes VR so exciting. Whenever you have an experience in the virtual world, your brain reacts in the same way as it does in the real world.

Every experience you have fires a neuron in the brain. Thoughts trigger emotions which release neurotransmitters – chemical messengers which transmit information to the body and tell it how to respond. These messages include how you feel.

You can, therefore, transport yourself from your front living room into outer space and experience what life is like as an astronaut. Using your head, limbs and body to move you can also become physically immersed in the virtual world.

Sensory feedback is aided by accessories. Headsets are the primary hardware but you can also purchase gloves or hand controls in addition. The hardware engages with the software to add the element of interaction and fully compound the immersive experience.

In order for VR to work well, the sensors need to roll at least 50 frames per second (fps). Any less than that, there is a lag in the visuals. When there is a delay between your action and a response in the virtual environment, the brain will notice and the sense of immersion is eventually lost.

What can VR headsets do?

VR headsets are loaded with sensors to track movement and motion. Although the primary sensors track head movements so you can look around, manufacturers are also working on perfecting motion tracking and eye tracking.

Premium headsets can track your position in a room but owners need to purchase an extra sensor to pick up motion tracking when playing games. Motion tracking picks up movements in your arms and legs.

Headsets track the movement of your head using a sophisticated system called Six Degrees of Freedom, or 6DoF. It senses your head movements from side to side, up and down, or to get a broader range of view, shoulder to shoulder. Some devices such as Sony’s PSVR uses nine LEDs to provide a full 360-degree visual.

VR headsets also come equipped with built-in headphones. Again there are differences in quality. Binaural or 3D audio is the most common as it gives the user the sense that sound is coming from behind you or from a distance away.

Types of VR headsets

In the last couple of years, there has been a raft of VR headsets and VR for mobile released. The most basic model is Google Cardboard, but with the influx of improved VR models – some of which are not expensive – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of GC. Many businesses use these cheaper headsets at promo events, branding them with their company logo (more info here).

Google’s latest mobile VR is DayDream. Together with Samsung Gear VR, you’re not going to get a better VR for mobile experience – at least not at the time of writing. And they are both affordable at £69/$92and £24/$33 respectively.

VR for mobile provides a fully immersive experience, and if you’re on a tight budget this is the best place to start. As good as they are, however, VR for mobile headsets lack the dimensions the latest gen of VR headsets offers.

At the high-end of the market, you’re looking at shelling out between £300 and £600 ($400-$800). You need to decide what you will most use VR headsets for and which content you prefer to engage with.

At the top of its class, HTC Vive is packing the punches. You need a computer or laptop with a high-end graphics card to feel the effects though. A less expensive alternative is the Sony PlayStation VR which plugs directly into the console.

Facebook-owned Oculus Go and Samsung Odyssey also offer some incredible VR experiences, and the price tag is a couple of hundred quid lighter than the HTC Vive. However, if you’re not ready to splash the cash just yet, Pansonite 3D VR is the closest you will get to a premium headset for an entry-level price.

Before setting up your VR rig, you also need to consider the positioning of your hardware components in relation to your movement/viewing space. Until manufacturers produce wifi headsets, you have to grapple with cables. There are effective solutions to avoid tripping over your VR cable wire though.

Can VR make you sick?

As exciting as VR is there is one drawback we should mention; virtual reality sickness. Wearing VR headsets can make you feel nauseous so don’t wear them for too long or play games with too much movement. Around 25-40% of users report feeling nausea whilst using VR.

VR sickness has been a problem since the earliest simulators. Scientists are not exactly sure what causes the problem, but the suspicion is it has something to do with a mismatch between the visual and vestibular systems – the network of canals and chambers in the inner ear.

It is thought that VR sickness is similar to motion sickness, so if you get travel sick, you’re probably not going to fair too well in VR headsets. You may be better with VR for mobile though as the immersive experience is not as intense.

VR sickness is an issue manufacturers are attempting to resolve. It is believed nausea is the body’s reaction to being in a new environment. The mind and body can mistake conflicting signals and trigger neurological confusion which releases neurotransmitters that make you feel sick.

This is because the mind is not accustomed to new experiences – hence why we often feel nervous or uncomfortable when we do something new. It’s just how the mind is programmed to work because we ordinarily work on auto-pilot for over 90% of the time.

People have different levels of susceptibility to virtual-reality sickness. Some users will recover from the feelings of nausea once the brain figures out which cues to pay attention to and which to ignore. The theory is you automatically click into virtual reality mode.

What’s next for VR?

At the turn of the year, during CES in Las Vegas, we had an insight into next-gen VR headsets. Some of the minor problems we mentioned above will be addressed, and tech giants are banking on improving user-experience even further.

One of the stand-out devices was a high-powered processing box which transmits data wirelessly. This means you will be able to enjoy VR without cables disturbing your immersive experience.

Companies have packed more pixels into the latest models, but the displays are still not as high-res as we have become accustomed to in today’s world of HD screens. That will change pretty quickly.

Oculus Rift already delivers 1080p. Samsung Odyssey and the HTC Vive Pro have topped up to 2880 x 1600px, and a company called Kopin demonstrated a 2000 x 2000 pixel OLED display which runs at 60 frames per second – which may also reduce VR sickness.

Eye-tracking is also expected in next-generation models. This is a sensor which monitors your eye movements and will enable the headset to render the visuals in front of your eyeballs with more detail, whilst fading out the distractions in the periphery – much like our eyes work ordinarily.

VR already offers plenty to get excited about. Although the headsets are still in their fledgeling stages, technological advancements move forward pretty quickly. And 2018 is the year VR headsets will really begin to capture the imagination of consumers and developers.

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