VR Definition - What is Virtual Reality?

April 4, 2024

Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience, similar to or completely different from the real world, achieved through the use of computer technology. It immerses users in a digitally constructed environment that they can interact with in a seemingly tangible way, typically using VR headsets or multi-projected environments. These headsets or rooms are equipped with sensors and displays that track the user's motions and adjust the visual and often auditory experience accordingly.

VR technology is used in various fields, such as entertainment, education, medicine, and training. It allows users to experience situations that are either impossible, dangerous, or expensive to replicate in the real world.

Augmented Reality (AR) vs. Virtual Reality (VR)

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are two technologies that revolutionize the way we interact with digital content, but they do so in distinctly different ways.

AR overlays digital information onto the real world, blending virtual components with the user's environment in real time. AR is experienced through devices like smartphones, tablets, or specialized AR glasses, which use cameras and sensors to superimpose computer-generated images on top of the user's view of the real world. Applications that use this technology range from navigation aids, where streets and directions are overlaid on a live view of the road, to interactive learning experiences, where historical figures or scientific concepts are brought to life in educational settings.

In contrast, VR creates a completely immersive digital environment that replaces the user's real-world surroundings. This immersion is achieved through VR headsets equipped with a screen and motion-tracking technology. Users are transported into entirely virtual spaces, from simulated environments for training and education to fantastical worlds for entertainment. VR's strength lies in its ability to create a controlled environment that simulates real-life situations or takes users to imaginary settings, offering a deeper level of immersion and interaction than AR.

A Short Historical Overview of VR

The concept of creating simulated environments for users to interact with can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s, with Morton Heilig's Sensorama being one of the earliest examples. This machine provided a multi-sensory experience, offering visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory stimuli. However, it was Ivan Sutherland's creation of the "Ultimate Display" in 1968, a head-mounted display that presented three-dimensional virtual worlds, which laid the foundational stone for VR.

During the 1980s and 1990s, VR technology saw significant advancements. Jaron Lanier, a key figure in this period, coined the term "Virtual Reality". He founded VPL Research, which developed early VR gear, including gloves and goggles. The 1990s witnessed a surge in interest and investment in VR, with the entertainment industry exploring its potential through arcade games and home systems. Despite early enthusiasm, technological limitations and high costs initially hindered widespread adoption.

It wasn't until the 21st century, with the advent of powerful processors, advanced graphics, and motion-tracking technology, that VR began to fulfill its promise. Companies like Oculus, HTC, and Sony have since developed VR systems that offer immersive experiences for gaming, education, training, and beyond, making virtual reality more accessible and effective than ever before.

Features of Virtual Reality Systems

Virtual Reality systems are designed to immerse users in a digital environment that feels real. This immersion is achieved through several core features:

  • Three-dimensional (3D) environments. VR systems generate 3D spaces with which users can navigate and interact. These environments range from realistic simulations of the real world to fantastical landscapes, all created to provide a sense of depth and space.
  • Head-mounted displays (HMDs). One of the most recognizable components of VR technology, HMDs are worn over the eyes like goggles and block out the external environment, presenting the virtual world directly to the user. These displays are equipped with sensors to track the user's head movements, adjusting the perspective in the virtual world accordingly.
  • Motion tracking. VR systems often include motion tracking technology, using cameras, sensors, and sometimes gloves or handheld controllers. This feature tracks the movement of the user's head, hands, and sometimes the full body, allowing for interactions within the virtual environment that feel natural and intuitive.
  • Audio immersion. Spatial audio technology is used to further enhance immersion, with sounds appearing to come from specific locations in the virtual space. This can make the environment feel more real and help users navigate and interact with the virtual world.
  • Haptic feedback. To simulate the sense of touch, some VR systems include haptic feedback devices, such as gloves or controllers that vibrate or apply force. This feedback can simulate the feeling of touching objects, adding a layer of realism to the virtual experience.
  • Interactivity. VR environments are not just passive; they are designed to be interacted with. Whether it's manipulating objects, engaging in virtual activities, or navigating through spaces, users can take active roles within the VR world.
  • Scalability and accessibility. Modern VR systems are designed to cater to a wide range of applications, from simple smartphone-based viewers that offer basic VR experiences to high-end setups with powerful computing resources for the most demanding simulations.

How Does VR Work?

Here's a step-by-step explanation of how VR works:

  1. Creating a virtual environment. The first step is the creation of a 3D digital environment. This can be anything from a realistic simulation of a real-world location to an entirely fictitious scene. These environments are created using specialized software by designers and developers, who model objects, textures, and physics to make the experience as realistic or fantastical as desired.
  2. Displaying the environment. The 3D environment is then displayed using an HMD or VR headset. This device contains one or two small screens that display the virtual environment to the user. Lenses placed between the screens and the eyes transform the flat images into a stereoscopic 3D experience, creating a sense of depth.
  3. Tracking the user's movement. To interact naturally with the virtual environment, the system must track the user's movements, particularly the head and hands. This is accomplished through various sensors in the HMD and sometimes additional equipment like cameras placed in the room, handheld controllers, and wearable sensors. These devices track movements and adjust the user's view in the virtual world, making it feel as though they are truly looking around or moving within that space.
  4. Rendering the environment. As the user interacts with the environment, a computer or a game console renders the virtual world in real time. This means it calculates what each new frame should look like based on the user's movements and interactions. This process requires significant computing power to maintain smooth and realistic motion, which is why high-end VR systems often require powerful processors and graphics cards.
  5. Providing audio and haptic feedback. To further enhance the immersion, VR systems employ spatial audio and haptic feedback. Spatial audio uses algorithms to simulate how sound would travel in a 3D space, making it seem as though noises are coming from specific directions and distances. Haptic feedback, provided through wearable devices like gloves or handheld controllers, simulates the sense of touch by applying force, vibration, or motion to mimic the feeling of touching or interacting with objects in the virtual world.
  6. User interaction. The user can interact with the virtual environment in various ways, from simple movements like looking around, walking, or pointing, to more complex interactions like picking up objects, manipulating tools, or engaging in virtual activities. This interaction is facilitated by the system's input devices (e.g., controllers, gloves, or even voice commands) and is limited only by the software's capabilities and the hardware's precision.

VR Types

The most common classification of VR types includes the following:

  • Non-immersive VR. Offers a virtual experience with minimal isolation from the real world, often through a computer or video game, where the user maintains awareness of their physical surroundings.
  • Semi-immersive VR. Provides a more engaging experience by projecting digital environments onto large screens or through head-mounted displays, yet still allows some connection to the real world.
  • Fully immersive VR. Completely transports the user into a digital realm, utilizing head-mounted displays, motion tracking, and haptic feedback to eliminate awareness of the physical world.

VR Hardware

Virtual Reality (VR) hardware encompasses a range of devices designed to immerse users into virtual environments. Central to this setup is the head-mounted display, a device worn over the eyes to present the virtual world, often equipped with built-in motion sensors to track head movements.

Additional peripherals include motion controllers, which allow users to interact with the virtual environment through hand movements, and tracking systems that monitor the user's position within a physical space to translate movements into the virtual world accurately. Haptic feedback devices, such as gloves or suits, provide tactile sensations, enhancing the immersion by simulating the touch and feel of virtual objects.

VR Accessories

Virtual Reality (VR) accessories enhance the immersive experience by providing additional ways to interact with virtual environments or improving the comfort and functionality of VR systems. These accessories include motion controllers that translate physical hand movements into digital actions, haptic feedback devices like gloves or vests that simulate touch or impact, and omnidirectional treadmills that allow users to walk or run in any direction within a confined space, offering a more natural method of moving through virtual spaces.

Other accessories, such as advanced audio headsets, ensure spatial sound accuracy. Eye tracking modules and additional sensors can further refine user interaction by allowing systems to respond to where the user is looking or moving more precisely.

VR Software

Virtual Reality software is a broad category that encompasses the applications, tools, and platforms used to create and experience immersive virtual environments. This software ranges from development platforms like Unity and Unreal Engine, which allow creators to build and design complex VR experiences, to applications designed for end-users, such as VR games, educational simulations, and training programs.

VR software must efficiently render 3D graphics, manage user input, and process real-time interactions within the virtual space to ensure a seamless and immersive experience. It also often incorporates advanced features such as spatial audio, physics simulations, and artificial intelligence to enhance realism and interactivity.

Practical Uses of VR

VR has found practical applications across various industries, transforming traditional approaches and creating new opportunities for engagement, learning, and operations. Here are some of the key areas where VR is making an impact:

  • Education and training. VR provides immersive learning experiences for students and professionals, enabling realistic simulations of complex procedures, such as surgeries for medical students or machinery operation for engineers, without the risks associated with real-life practice.
  • Healthcare. Beyond training, VR is used for therapy, including pain management and rehabilitation, by immersing patients in environments that distract from discomfort or assist in the recovery of motor skills following injury.
  • Entertainment. The entertainment industry has embraced VR for gaming, offering players deeply immersive experiences, as well as for virtual concerts and events, allowing users to experience live performances from the comfort of their homes.
  • Real estate and architecture. VR tours allow potential buyers to explore properties remotely, while architects use VR to visualize and refine designs before construction begins.
  • Retail. Virtual stores enable customers to browse and interact with products in a 3D environment, enhancing the online shopping experience and providing a detailed preview of items before purchase.
  • Tourism. VR travel experiences offer virtual tours of destinations around the world, providing a taste of travel to those unable to visit in person, or helping travelers plan their trips by exploring attractions beforehand.
  • Military. The military employs VR for training simulations, preparing soldiers for various scenarios they might encounter in the field, from combat training to medical and technical tasks, in a controlled and safe environment.
  • Automotive industry. VR is used for the design and testing of new vehicles, allowing engineers and designers to examine prototypes and test car ergonomics and aerodynamics without the need for physical models.
  • Space exploration. Agencies like NASA utilize VR to simulate space environments for astronaut training, preparing them for tasks they will perform on missions, and even to control rovers and other equipment remotely.
  • Mental health. VR therapies are being explored for treating psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, and phobias, by gradually exposing patients to their triggers in a controlled and safe virtual setting.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.