Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated scenario that simulates a realistic experience. The immersive environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience grounded in reality or sci-fi. Augmented reality systems may also be considered a form of VR that layers virtual information over a live camera feed into a headset or through a smartphone or tablet device.

Virtual reality

The definition of virtual reality comes, naturally, from the definitions of both ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’. The definition of ‘virtual’ is near and reality is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality’. This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.

While devices generally take the same form, how they project imaging in front of our eyes varies greatly. The likes of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift provide PC-based operations, though major players such as Google and Samsung offer more affordable, smartphone-based headsets. Sony has also managed to crack the console scene with its PlayStation VR.
Standalone VR is something you’ll be hearing more of too – in 2018 Oculus will launch the Oculus Go, and Lenovo’s standalone Daydream headset is also expected.

Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses. In other words, our entire experience of reality is simply a combination of sensory information and our brains sense-making mechanisms for that information. It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with made-up information, your perception of reality would also change in response to it. You would present with a version of reality that isn’t really there, but from your perspective, it would perceive as real. Something we would refer to as a virtual reality.

How virtual reality achieved?

Although we talk about a few historical early forms of virtual reality elsewhere on the site.  Today the virtual reality usually implemented using computer technology. There is a range of systems that are used for this purpose, such as headsets, omnidirectional treadmills, and special gloves. These used to actually stimulate our senses together in order to create the illusion of reality.

This is more difficult than it sounds since our senses and brains evolved to provide us with a finely synchronized and mediated experience. If anything is even a little off we can usually tell. This is where you’ll hear terms such as immersiveness and realism enter the conversation. These issues that divide convincing or enjoyable virtual reality experiences from jarring or unpleasant ones are partly technical and partly conceptual. Virtual reality technology needs to take our physiology into account.

For example, the human visual field does not look like a video frame. We have (more or less) 180 degrees of vision. And although you are not always consciously aware of your peripheral vision, if it is gone you’d notice. Similarly when what your eyes and the vestibular system in your ears tell you are in conflict it can cause motion sickness. Which is what happens to some people on boats or when they read while in a car.

Applications of VR

U.S. Navy personnel using a VR parachute training simulator.

VR has many applications in a variety of fields. It most commonly uses in entertainment applications such as gaming and 3D cinema. Consumer virtual reality headsets first released by video game companies in the early-mid 1990’s. Beginning in the 2010’s, next-generation commercial tethered headsets released by Oculus. The HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR setting off a new wave of application development.

3D cinema has used for sporting events, pornography, fine art, music videos and short films. Since 2015, virtual reality has installed onto a number of roller coasters and theme parks.