What Is Virtual Reality?

Learn more about how VR simulates a real world within a virtual space

Photo of a man hanging above Bangkok, Thailand
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Virtual reality (VR) is the name coined for any system that aims to allow a user to feel as if they're experiencing a particular experience through the use of special perception-changing tools. In other words, VR is an illusion of reality, one that exists inside a virtual, software-based world.

When connected to a VR system, the user might be able to move their head around in a full 360 motion to see all around them.

Some VR environments use handheld tools and special floors that can make the user feel as if they can walk around and interact with virtual objects.

There are a few different types of VR systems; some use your existing smartphone or computer but others need to connect to a gaming console in order to work. A user can wear a head-mounted display that connects directly to the device so that they can watch movies, play video games, explore fantasy worlds or real-life places, experience high-risk sports, learn how to fly a plane or perform surgery, and much more.

Tip: Interested in a VR headset? See our list of the Best Virtual Reality Headsets to Buy.

Note: Augmented reality (AR) is a form of virtual reality with one major difference: instead of virtualizing the whole experience like VR, virtual elements are overlaid on top of real ones so that the user sees both at the same time, blended into one experience.

How VR Works

The aim of virtual reality is to simulate an experience and create what’s called a "sense of presence." To do this requires the use of any number of tools that can mimic sight, sound, touch, or any of the other senses.

The primary hardware used for simulating a virtual environment is a display.

This might be accomplished through the use of strategically placed monitors or a regular television set, but is typically done via a head-mounted display that covers both eyes so that all vision is blocked except for whatever is being fed through the VR system.

The user can feel immersed in the game, movie, etc. because all other distractions in the physical room are blocked out. When the user looks up, they can see whatever is presented above them in the VR software, like the sky, or the ground when looking down.

Most VR headsets have headphones built-in that provides surround sound much like we experience in the real world. For example, when a sound comes from the left in the virtual reality scene, the user can experience that same sound through the left side of their headphones.

Special objects or gloves might also be used to create haptic feedback that are connected to the VR software so that when the user picks up something in the virtual reality world, they can feel that same sensation in the real world.

Tip: A similar haptic system can be seen in gaming controllers that vibrate when something happens on the screen. In much the same way, a VR controller or object might shake or provide physical feedback to a virtual stimulus.

Most often reserved for video games, some VR systems might include a treadmill that simulates walking or running. When the user runs faster in the real world, their avatar can match that same speed in the virtual world. When the user stops moving, the character in the game will stop moving too.

A full-fledged VR system might include all of the above tools to create the most life-like scenario, but some only include one or two of them but then provide compatibility for devices made from other developers.

Smartphones, for example, already include a display, audio support, and motions sensors which is why they can be used to create handheld VR tools and augmented reality systems.

Virtual Reality Applications

Although VR is often seen only as a way to build immersive gaming experiences or passively sit in a virtual movie theater, there are actually lots of other real-world applications.

Training and Education

The next best thing to hands-on learning is hands-on learning in VR. If an experience can be simulated well enough, the user can apply real-world actions to real-world scenarios… but without any of the real-world risks.

Consider flying a plane. In reality, a completely inexperienced user would in no way be given the authority to fly hundreds of passengers around at 600 MPH, thousands of feet in the air.

However, if you can match the minute details necessary for such a feat, and combine the controls into a VR system, the user can crash the plane as many times as necessary before becoming an expert.

The same is true for learning how to parachute, performing complex surgery, driving a vehicle, overcoming anxieties, etc.

When it comes to education in particular, a student might not be able to make it into class due to bad weather or simply distance, but with VR set up in the classroom, anyone can attend class from the comfort of their home.

What makes VR different than just at-home work is that the user can actually feel like they’re in class with the other students and listen to and watch the teacher instead of just learn concepts from a textbook with all the other distractions at home.

Marketing

Similar to how virtual reality can let you take real life risks without its repercussions, it can also be used to “buy” things without wasting money on them.

Retailers can provide a way for their customers to obtain a virtual model of a real object before they make the purchase.

One benefit to this can be seen when scoping out a new vehicle. The customer might be able to sit in the front or back of the vehicle to see how it “feels” before deciding whether to look into it further. A VR system can even be used to simulate driving the new car so that customers can make even quicker decisions on their purchases.

The same idea can be seen when buying furniture in an augmented reality setup, where the user can overlay the object directly into their living room to see exactly how that new couch would look if it existed in your room right now.

Real estate is another area where VR can enhance the experience of the potential buyer and save time and money from the owner’s perspective. If customers can walk through a virtual rendition of a home whenever they want, it can make buying or renting that much smoother than booking a time for a walkthrough.

Engineering and Design

One of the hardest things to do when building 3D models is visualizing what it looks like in the real world. Similar to the marketing benefits of VR explained above, designers and engineers can have a much better look at their models when they can see it from every possible perspective.

Looking over a prototype created from a virtual design is the logical next step before the implementation process. VR inserts itself into the design process by providing engineers with a way to examine a model in a life-like scenario before having to spend any money on producing the object in the real world.

When an architect or engineer designs a bridge, skyscraper, home, vehicle, etc., virtual reality lets them flip the object over, zoom up to see any flaws, examine every minute detail in full 360 view, and maybe even apply real life physics to the models to see how they respond to wind, water, or other elements that normally interact with these structures.

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