A man adjusting his VR headset in an office

What Is Virtual Reality? A Beginner’s Guide

Each year, virtual reality grows in popularity around the world. With large companies like Meta investing heavily into this technology, you may be wondering what it’s all about.

The best way to understand VR is to pop on a headset and give it a try, but if you want the answers now then keep reading. We’ve created the ultimate guide to virtual reality so that you can up your knowledge, all from this one page.  

What is VR?

Virtual reality (VR) uses computer technology to create an immersive environment, making the user feel like they’re part of their surroundings. By wearing a head-mounted display or headset, users can view 3-dimensional objects and scenes that appear real.

Imagine getting in the ring with a world champion boxer or strolling through the inside of ancient Egyptian pyramids. How about watching a lecture with other students or chatting in a bar without leaving your home? All of this is already possible and with advances in VR technology, each year the experiences get better.

How does VR compare with a 3D experience?

While 3D takes a flat screen and adds depth, virtual reality allows the user to immerse themselves in the scene. In addition to 360-degree views, VR allows you to touch objects and interact with the environment. For example, in a VR world, it is possible to pick up an imaginary ball, type on, or spray paint a wall with graffiti.

VR Vs. AR – what’s the difference?

Virtual reality is an artificial environment for humans to inhabit, while augmented reality brings simulated objects that are artificial into the real world. A VR user may immerse themselves into a virtual jungle and interact with the local flora, while AR might render 3D graphics of a wine bottle in front of you on the desk. 

In AR, the orientation and position of a device’s camera are determined by the computer using algorithms and sensors. VR doesn’t try to locate a camera in a physical environment, it uses the headset and other haptic devices like hand sensors and vests to understand your body movements and orientation.

Who Is virtual reality for?

It is hard to imagine an area of life where VR doesn’t apply. Content creators are only just starting to get busy, designing games, apps, and learning tools for many niches. 

  • People with disabilities can easily experience the thrill of climbing a mountain or driving a racing car.
  • Medical students can practice high-risk operations before working on real patients.
  • Gamers can take console and PC gaming to a new, immersive level. Shooting guns, fighting, ducking, and throwing are just a few ways to enjoy gaming at a higher level.
  • Education has huge ramifications for lectures, interactive learning, and field trips. Imagine learning about World War 1 by standing in the trenches.
  • Tourism industry operators can give potential travelers a taster of what to expect. Strolling through a hotel room before booking it would make the buying decision smoother.
  • Businesses can meet with their customers virtually, providing huge cost and time savings as well as reducing the company’s carbon footprint.

The only real limits to VR are accessing a device that’s capable of running the technology and content availability. Over time, these limitations will diminish, with a wide range of interest groups and industries taking advantage of them.

A team sitting at a desk testing out VR headsets. One team member sits in a wheelchair.
Virtual reality is an inclusive technology with huge implications for disabled.

What technology is used to run VR?

The goggles

Head-mounted displays are the most important part of your VR setup. These can range in design and price, but they’re usually thick goggles or glasses that fit comfortably on the head, covering the eyes.

The cheaper headsets may be made with cardboard, fitting over the front of a mobile phone. But these are no match for higher-end products that have a built-in computer and speakers.

Leading VR devices such as the Occulus Quest 2, are standalone wireless devices that you can connect to the internet. This allows you to access a store for downloading games and apps. They also have the option to connect to a computer and download from places like the Steam digital games store.  

Check out our article on the types of virtual reality headsets to learn more.    

Hand controllers

The virtual reality space is changing rapidly, with new software and hardware hitting the market each month. After headsets, hand controllers are the most popular wearable. They translate real-world hand gestures into the virtual world. Waving, shaking hands, punching, picking up, pulling triggers, and pressing buttons are a few ways to use a hand controller.

Other wearables

Innovative companies are making big leaps into haptic wearables. These are usually untethered body devices that allow you to feel vibrations and taps as well as convey your movements to the virtual world.

Wearables can be attached to the chest, hands, arms, feet, or any moving body part. In a boxing fight, you’d feel your opponent’s punches connecting, although much less violently than a real-world fight.

The audio component of virtual reality is crucial to a realistic experience. Vision and hearing need to work in unison, so accurate environmental sounds are essential. But when kinesthetic or touch feedback technology is introduced into the VR system, the user gets true-life sensations. Companies like HaptX, Bhaptics, and Teslasuit are leading the way in this area of VR technology.    

A woman sitting at a couch wearing a VR headset and holding hand sensors.
The headset and hand sensors are essential VR kit.

Is VR good for our society?

The pros

Convenience: Visit places in a flash that could otherwise take days to get to. Why not visit Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef in the safe afternoon? 

Equalizing: It can be hugely challenging for some people in the real world. But disabilities, anxiety disorders, and other health issues disappear in the virtual landscape. Choose an avatar and chat at a bar, something you’d never contemplate in real life.

Risk-free rewards: Activities like rock climbing and sky diving carry risk. With VR, you can experience the adrenaline rush without the risk of injury or death.

Cheap fun: There are so many activities you can take part in from your own home. Ride a roller coaster and travel the world without the unwanted cost.

The cons

Reduced human contact: Humans are social creatures that benefit from being around others. Getting too immersed in a virtual world could lead to social issues in the future.

Medical issues: While VR is a relatively safe pastime, prolonged use can lead to eye strain and motion sickness.

Addiction: Getting caught up in a world of virtual reality could lead to addiction. While this is a real possibility, it could be argued that this relates to most technology, not just VR.

Commonly asked questions

How does virtual reality work?

Although VR comes in different formats, it typically uses a headset that tethers to a computer, gaming device, or smartphone; alternatively, the headset may come with its own built-in computer. An input tracking device that takes cues from your hands, head, voice, or other body parts has also become mainstream.

Where did virtual reality come from?

Although it hasn’t been until recent years that VR has started gaining popularity, the first head-mounted display was back in 1968. Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull developed a computer tethered display of Sword of Damocles. This large contraption was hung from the ceiling as it was too heavy to wear. To learn more about the origins of this technology, check out our guide to the history of VR.

Why is everyone talking about VR?

As VR technology becomes more affordable and easier to set up, more people around the world are jumping on board. Growth in headset purchases and improved technology makes software development and content creation more viable. As the applications for VR increase, so too does the buzz around the technology.

What was the main purpose of virtual reality?

The goal of virtual reality is to allow humans to immerse themselves in a computer-generated environment that feels like they’re actually there. The early focus of VR has been on gaming, but a huge investment is going into creating applications for a wide range of industries and interests.   

What is simulator sickness?

Simulator sickness is a feeling people commonly feel after using a VR headset for too long. It feels like car sickness and happens because your inner ear feels something different from what your eyes are seeing.

What is latency?

Latency is the time it takes for the headset’s screen to reflect your head’s movements. If a headset has high latency, the screen will lag your movements. Not only does a higher latency affect the quality of the VR experience, but it’s also the main reason people get motion sickness.

Who are some of the main VR headset providers?

New companies are jumping on board the race for VR supremacy, but some of the current big players are Oculus, HTC, HP, and Playstation.

What is the screen door effect?

The screen door effect results from having a screen within a couple of inches of your eyes. Even with the best display resolution, you can still see pixels and the dark spaces between them, like a screen door or fine mesh.

What are degrees of freedom?

Degrees of Freedom (DoF) determines how much movement a user has in a VR environment. More basic headsets offer 3DoF (360° VR) allowing you to look freely around a space, without movement. VR that offers 6DoF gives users freedom to move around in their environment and realistically interact with objects.   

What is VR presence?

VR presence happens when the virtual reality experience is so convincing and realistic, that your brain thinks it’s real. If you couldn’t jump from an airplane in VR, you were experiencing presence.

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