Virtual Reality technology has been around in some form for decades, although prior to the last couple of years VR has mostly been present in various bits and pieces of pop culture. It’s been popular in films and even Nintendo has tried their hand at it with the Virtual Boy that was released back in the 90s, but it wasn’t until Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR launched just a couple of years ago that VR technology really started to take on a new form and reinvigorate our curiosity for the technology and what it could provide. While most people are familiar with the terms “virtual reality” and “VR,” fewer people may know exactly how the tech works and is able to deliver the kinds of experiences that it does, whether that be games, movies, photos, or apps.
So what is VR? That’s a simple question to answer, really. It’s an immersive technology that allows the user to engage in various activities in a digital world, but feel like they’re actually part of that world. These experiences are had through the use of VR headsets, and there are many of these available on the market (most of them based on the Google Cardboard setup), with a few that actually provide extensive VR immersion like the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and now the Sony PlayStation VR as it just officially launched yesterday, and soon to be Google’s Daydream View headset. With the “what” out of the way, let’s move on to the “how” which is in this case, how VR works to deliver that immersive experience that makes the content so captivating.
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Using the Daydream View as an example, you simply put the phone in the front loading compartment, flip up the enclosure, and secure the latch, then put on the headset and things just appear. Right? Basically, yest, but there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. The headset and the phone are merely one component each, but there are more variables to consider which make up the sum of all the parts to get the end result of what we experience as virtual reality content. With the headset, and the phone (or PC/Console if you’re talking about the Vive, Rift, or PSVR) being the vessel and the driving power behind the content, you still need a way to input or control the content, such as Google’s Daydream View controller that looks like a small remote. This for example, handles all your navigation of the VR content you would experience when wearing the headset. Then of course, you also need to have the content, such as apps or games to install on your device. With all of these things in place consumers can have a fairly immersive experience right in front of their eyes, and even though they won’t be forgetting the fact that they’re strapped in to virtual tech, it’s highly likely that it will be easy to put that thought aside a little bit.
When it comes to delivering the picture from the device that’s powering the experience to the display which is facing the viewer, it depends on the type of VR headset that’s being used. For the Gear VR and Daydream View, the content is already installed on the device (your phone) which also acts as the display. With headsets like the HTC Vive that are connected to a PC, an HDMI cable connects the headset to the computer so it can feed the picture to the display in the headset. Some VR headsets will also have lenses that sit in front of your eyes which can be adjusted to get the best possible focus. This is essentially so that the user can ensure that each picture is being viewed at the same distance which allows the the headset to deliver a stereoscopic 3D picture. While this helps with the immersion of the experience, the field of view in the headset is also an important factor in setting the stage for things feeling and looking like you’re actually immersed in the content you’re interacting with. The Gear VR for instance, has a 101-degree field of view. The PlayStation VR is listed as being around 100-degrees. Both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have a 110-degree field of view. The field of view is what allows you to look around and see the picture of the content you’re interacting with in pretty much any direction, and when paired with a high frame rate that is at least 60fps, the picture, video, etc. is more seamless with little to no stutter to make things feel more real.
In addition to all of this, the headset also has to be able to track your movements in some way so that it knows where you’re looking, or in the case of the HTC Vive, where you’re pointing one of the controllers. VR headsets can use both head tracking and motion tracking, and while eye tracking is not yet available in any of the headsets that are currently on the market, it’s being worked on and once it’s incorporated, headsets will be able to provide a more realistic immersion with details like blur on certain objects as the viewer looks at things in the foreground or background. This is how things are perceived by our eyes in the real world, objects in the foreground blur when you look at objects further in the distance, and when you’re looking at something directly in front of you, objects in the background begin to blur. This kind of view is what eye tracking will be able to provide. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s one thing to know how things work but it’s an entirely different thing to experience it for yourself, and with options like the Gear VR and Daydream View, it’s more possible for the average consumer to get their hands on this kind of tech without having to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on the headset and supporting hardware.