What is Virtual Reality?

VR Headset

The definition "Virtual Reality" (VR) in technology is quite literal. Simply put, virtual reality involves exposing primarily our sight, and secondarily touch and hearing, perceptions to a computer generated content that allows the user to explore and interact with this immersive environment that is very similar to how reality would behave.


"Virtual Reality" is often confused with "Augmented Reality" (AR for short). The difference between two is that AR involves the augmentation of reality, instead of an entirely virtual environment. It is easy to tell the technology apart as the hardware for augmented reality often involves something transparent, such as a transparent visor or glasses that allows the user to see their true environment. Examples of AR hardware would be Google Glass and Hololens by Microsoft.

Requirements to be true VR

In order for an environment to be considered to true virtual reality, it must meet two requirements:

Three-dimensional images

To allow for a the true perception of depth.

Provide responses in real-time

The virtual environment responds to body driven inputs, such as head movements, otherwise, that's just called 3D.

How does VIRTUAL REALITY work?

  HTC Vive, hardware created as a joint venture between HTC and Valve.

HTC Vive, hardware created as a joint venture between HTC and Valve.

The VR headset on the right is called the HTC Vive, and is a joint venture between HTC & Valve, and is just one of the many examples of what a VR user might wear to be immersed in the virtual realm.

These head sets work by having two screens displaying computer generated content for each eye. However, each screen is not identical as the perspective varies slightly between them. This simulates your vision in reality, where information from each eye are overlapped to give you depth perception. The term for this is called stereoscopic vision.

In addition, gyroscopes within the headset and markers on the headset that are picked up by motion detecting receivers allow the program running the virtual environment to feed the appropriate field of vision to the wearer.

These two aspects combined make up the fundamentals of today's virtual reality technology.

Why wasn't VR invented sooner?

The idea of virtual reality isn't an entirely new concept. As early as the 1930s, author Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a science fiction novel that explored a pair of goggles that allowed the user to experience a virtual reality through holographics. In the 1960s, Morton Heilig, a cinematographer created a VR device the size of a refrigerator. This device incorporated stereoscopic vision, smell, and even touch. This was just the beginning to a series different VR concepts.

List of pioneer VR devices:

  • 1929 - Link Trainer
  • 1961 - Headsight
  • 1962 - Sensorama
  • 1968 - Sword of Damocles
  • 1993 - Sega VR
  • 1995 - Nintendo Virtual Boy

So why has virtual reality finally gotten the attention of mainstream media and development capital of large corporations? The answer is simple: Mobile phone technology.

In order for virtual reality to get to where it is today. Many new technologies needed to be realized and mature in order for it to work, especially small and powerful mobile technology. 

Technologies that needed to mature includes:

  • 3D computer generated graphics
  • Physics engines for computer generated environments
  • Motion sensing technology
  • High density screens
  • Computer processing capacity and chip size

More importantly, where the technology has expanded at an exponential rate, the cost of this technology has decreased, finally allowing corporations to look into developing consumer VR headsets as a viable product.