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What is Virtual Reality? VR Definition and Examples

See some real examples of Virtual Reality shopping apps; or for a look ahead, check out the 5 top Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology trends for 2019. This post was last updated on June 7, 2019.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.

What’s the difference Between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are two sides of the same coin. You could think of Augmented Reality as VR with one foot in the real world: Augmented Reality simulates artificial objects in the real environment; Virtual Reality creates an artificial environment to inhabit.

In Augmented Reality, the computer uses sensors and algorithms to determine the position and orientation of a camera. AR technology then renders the 3D graphics as they would appear from the viewpoint of the camera, superimposing the computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real world.

In Virtual Reality, the computer uses similar sensors and math. However, rather than locating a real camera within a physical environment, the position of the user’s eyes are located within the simulated environment. If the user’s head turns, the graphics react accordingly. Rather than compositing virtual objects and a real scene, VR technology creates a convincing, interactive world for the user.

Virtual Reality technology

Virtual Reality’s most immediately-recognizable component is the head-mounted display (HMD). Human beings are visual creatures, and display technology is often the single biggest difference between immersive Virtual Reality systems and traditional user interfaces. For instance, CAVE automatic virtual environments actively display virtual content onto room-sized screens. While they are fun for people in universities and big labs, consumer and industrial wearables are the wild west.

With a multiplicity of emerging hardware and software options, the future of wearables is unfolding but yet unknown. Concepts such as the HTC Vive Pro Eye, Oculus Quest and Playstation VR are leading the way, but there are also players like Google, Apple, Samsung, Lenovo and others who may surprise the industry with new levels of immersion and usability. Whomever comes out ahead, the simplicity of buying a helmet-sized device that can work in a living-room, office, or factory floor has made HMDs center stage when it comes to Virtual Reality technologies.

Virtual Reality and the importance of audio

Convincing Virtual Reality applications require more than just graphics. Both hearing and vision are central to a person’s sense of space. In fact, human beings react more quickly to audio cues than to visual cues. In order to create truly immersive Virtual Reality experiences, accurate environmental sounds and spatial characteristics are a must. These lend a powerful sense of presence to a virtual world. To experience the binaural audio details that go into a Virtual Reality experience, put on some headphones and tinker with this audio infographic published by The Verge.

While audio-visual information is most easily replicated in Virtual Reality, active research and development efforts are still being conducted into the other senses. Tactile inputs such as omnidirectional treadmills allow users to feel as though they’re actually walking through a simulation, rather than sitting in a chair or on a couch. Haptic technologies, also known as kinesthetic or touch feedback tech, have progressed from simple spinning-weight “rumble” motors to futuristic ultrasound technology. It is now possible to hear and feel true-to-life sensations along with visual VR experiences.

As of the end of 2018, the three best selling Virtual Reality headsets were Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR), Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. This was not a surprise, seeing as the same three HMDs had also been best sellers in 2017. 2019 sees the VR landscape broadening with Google, HP, Lenovo, and others looking to grab a piece of the still-burgeoning market.

Here’s a look at 2019’s major VR hardware manufacturers and the devices they are manufacturing:

Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, Oculus Go, Oculus Quest

Originally funded as a Kickstarter project in 2012, and engineered with the help of John Carmack (founder of Id Software, of Doom and Quake fame), Oculus became the early leader in Virtual Reality hardware for video games. Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, and brought the company’s high-end VR HMD to market for consumers. More recently, Oculus has seen success with the lower-price, lower-powered Oculus Go, and 2019 will see the release of multiple new iterations on the hardware, including the tethered Rift S and the stand-alone Oculus Quest.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift

Price: $399
Additional Equipment Required? High-end PC
Display technology: OLED
Resolution: 2160×1200 (1080×1200 per eye) at 90 Hz
Field of View: 110 degrees
Tracking System: 6DOF (3-axis rotational tracking + 3-axis positional tracking) through USB-connected IR LED sensor, which tracks via the “constellation” method
Controller: Xbox One game controller, Oculus Touch motion-tracked controllers
Audio: Integrated 3D audio headphones
Weight: 460 grams
Platform System: Windows, MacOS, and GNU/Linux
Connectivity: HDMI 1.3, USB 3.0, USB 2.0
Camera: No

Oculus Rift S

Pricing: $399
Release Date: Spring 2019
Resolution: 1,280 × 1,440 per eye (2,560 × 1,440 total)
Refresh Rate: 80Hz
Field of View: Slightly larger than Rift’s 110 Degrees
Tracking: ‘Insight’ inside out – five cameras
Capabilities: Supports 6 degrees of freedom head and controller tracking
Platform System: Windows, MacOS, and GNU/Linux

Oculus Go

Oculus Go S

Price: $199
Additional Equipment Required? No
Resolution: 5.5-inch display with a 2560×1440 resolution (1280×1440 per eye) at 72 Hz
Field of View: 100 degrees (approx.)
Tracking System: 3 degrees of freedom tracking
Controller: Included
Audio: Integrated speakers with spatial audio delivered through head strap and 3.5mm headphone jack and built-in microphone
Weight: 467 grams
Platform System: Oculus Platform
Connectivity: None
Camera: No

Oculus Quest

In September 2018, Oculus announced the Oculus Quest, the company’s latest stand-alone VR Headset. The Quest uses motion controllers similar to Oculus Touch, has four wide-angle cameras for positional tracking, and sports resolution of 1600×1440 per eye, with option to adjust the lens spacing. The headset launches first half of 2019 and will list for $399.

HTC Vive, HTC Vive Pro Eye, HTC Cosmos, HTC Focus, HTC Plus

The HTC Vive has been one of the best VR HMDs on the market since its consumer release back in 2016. Manufactured by HTC, the Vive was the first VR HMD to support SteamVR. The Vive has been locked in fierce competition with the Oculus Rift since release, as both headsets aimed at the same top end of the VR enthusiast market. The Vive has proven itself a durable workhorse for enterprise solutions, while also delivering one of the best consumer VR experiences available. The Vive was first released back in 2016, and has gone through several iterations, with the addition of a wireless module. The Vive Pro came out in 2018 and the Vive Pro Eye and the HTC Vive Cosmos are both slated for release in the second half of 2019.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive

Price: $499
Additional Equipment Required? High-end PC
Screen: Dual AMOLED 3.6’’ diagonal
Resolution: 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye (2160 x 1200 pixels combined)
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Field of view: 110 degrees
Safety features: Chaperone play area boundaries and front-facing camera
Sensors: SteamVR Tracking, G-sensor, gyroscope, proximity
Connections: HDMI, USB 2.0, stereo 3.5 mm headphone jack, Power, Bluetooth
Input: Integrated microphone
Eye Relief: Interpupillary distance and lens distance adjustment
Sensors: SteamVR Tracking
Input: Multifunction trackpad, Grip buttons, dual-stage trigger, System button, Menu button
Connections: Micro-USB charging port

HTC Vive Pro

Price: $799
Additional Equipment Required? High-end PC
Display: Dual AMOLED
Resolution: 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye (2880 x 1600 pixels combined) at 90 Hz
Field of View: 110 degrees
Tracking System: Lighthouse base stations emitting pulsed IR lasers
Controller: SteamVR wireless motion-tracked controllers
Audio: 3.5mm audio jack for headphones, built-in microphone
Weight: 470 grams
Platform System: SteamVR running on Microsoft Windows in addition to Linux support and macOS
Connectivity: 1× HDMI, 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2, and 1× USB 3.0
Camera: Front-facing camera

HTC Vive Pro Eye

Vive Pro Eye

Price: $799
Additional Equipment Required? High-end PC
Display: Dual AMOLED
Resolution: 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye (2880 x 1600 pixels combined) at 90 Hz
Field of View: 110 degrees
Tracking System: Lighthouse base stations emitting pulsed IR lasers, SteamVR Tracking, G-sensor, gyroscope, proximity, IPD sensor, eye-tracking
Controller: SteamVR wireless motion-tracked controllers
Audio: 3.5mm audio jack for headphones, dual built-in microphone
Weight: 470 grams
Platform System: SteamVR running on Microsoft Windows in addition to Linux support and macOS
Connectivity: USB-C 3.0, DP 1.2, Bluetooth
Camera: Front-facing camera

HTC Vive Cosmos

HTC Vive Cosmos

Details remain scarce on the Cosmos, which looks like it may attempt to bridge the quality gap between tethered and untethered headsets. The Cosmos will require tethering to another device, but it may not be limited to high-end gaming PCs. A VR headset that can tether to a smartphone? Interesting idea. The Vive Cosmos promises “crystal-clear graphics” thanks to a new pixel-packing process that aims to minimize screen door effect as much as possible. The HMD’s tracking system promises wide and accurate tracking, gesture controls, and a 6 Degrees of freedom (DOF) headset-and-controller setup. No word on price or release date for the Cosmos yet, but expect it sometime in the second half of 2019.

Sony’s PSVR

Sony’s entry into the market is the lowest powered of the three best-selling VR HMDs, but the PSVR has a big advantage over the Rift and Vive. Because it’s tethered to the Playstation 4 gaming system, there was an enormous, pre-existing user base of 10s of millions of gamers, many of whom were eager to try their hand at VR. Because that user base already had a PS4, Sony’s customers didn’t have to purchase/upgrade their computer hardware, making the PSVR the most “affordable” of the high-end HMDs. As such, the PSVR is the best-selling Virtual Reality HMD on the market, moving over 4 million units since its initial release, and showing that, if nothing else, VR gaming is here to stay.

HMD + Smartphone Virtual Reality

There’s a second class of Virtual Reality HMD that is really just a shell with special lens that pairs with a smartphone to deliver a VR experience. These devices can sell for almost nothing (and are often given away free), and deliver a scaled down VR experience that still approaches the immersive experiences generated by much-more expensive hardware.

Additional VR HMDs that pair with Smartphones:

Meet The Virtual Newcomers/Lesser Known Manufacturers

Additional VR HMDs made by companies both big and small are now hitting the market, making up for a lack of pedigree in the space with impressive tech specs and lower price points. It remains to be seen if any of these “second tier” options have the juice to break through and become a leader in the VR space.

HP ReverbVR

HP ReverbVR

Price: $599
Additional Equipment Required? High-end PC with DisplayPort 1.3 connection
Resolution: 2160×2160 resolution per eye (4320×2160 combined resolution) at 90 Hz
Field of View: 114 degrees
Tracking System: built-in inside-out 6-degree-of-freedom (6DoF) positional tracking
Controller: DualShock 4 controller
Audio: spatial audio headset
Platform System: Windows Mixed Reality and SteamVR
Camera: Dual front-facing cameras to enable Augmented Reality applications

Lenovo Mirage Solo

Lenovo Mirage Solo

Price: $399
Additional Equipment Required? No
Resolution: 2560×1440 LCD screen
Field of View: 110 degrees
Tracking System: 6 degrees of freedom tracking
Controller: Wireless Daydream Motion Controller
Audio: Android™ N Pro Audio, 3.5mm audio jack with dual microphones
Weight: 645 grams
Platform System: Google Daydream
Connectivity: WLAN: WiFi 802.11 ac/n 2×2 MIMO Dual Band, Bluetooth™ 5.0 + BLE
Camera: Dual 6 degrees of freedom tracking cameras, Mirage Camera add-on allows users to capture 180-degree VR in 4K

Pimax 8K

Pimax 8K

Price: $900
Resolution: 3,840 × 2,160 per display (7,680 × 2,160 total) at 80 Hz
Input content: upscaled from 2,560 × 1,440
Field Of View: ~200 degree diagonal
Audio: 3.5mm audio jack, integrated microphone
Output: USB 2.0/3.0, DP 1.4
Tracking: SteamVR 1.0 and 2.0 tracking
Content: SteamVR and Oculus Home

Pimax 5K Plus

Price: $700
Resolution: 2,560 × 1,440 per (5,120 × 1,440 total) at 90 Hz
Input content: delivered at native 2,560 × 1,440
Field of View: ~200 degree diagonal
Audio: 3.5mm audio jack, integrated microphone
Output: USB 2.0/3.0, DP 1.4
Tracking: support for SteamVR 1.0 and 2.0 tracking
Content: SteamVR and Oculus Home

Pico G2 & G2 4K

Pico G2

Price: $299 for G2, TBA for G2 4K
Resolution: 1440 x 1600 screen resolution at 90Hz
Field of View: 101 degrees
Tracking: 3DoF
Content: Pico Store, Viveport M

Pansonite, GenBasic, StarVR and more

Many other companies are developing Virtual Reality headsets and other peripherals. Upcoming hardware includes the GenBasic Quad HD, StarVR StarOne, Vrgineers XTAL and Pansonite VR Headset. As more and better hardware hits the market, it will continue to power a growing ecosystem of hardware manufacturers, software developers, and content providers.

Even more VR HMDS

In addition to all the hardware explored above, there is an ever-expanding number of other devices launched by lesser-known companies looking to grab mind and market share. These include:
Bobo VR Z4
Destek V4 VR Headset
Fengfa 3D VR
Freefly VR
Homido Mini
Incredisonic VR Headset
Leji VR Mini
Ling VR
Meco VR Glasses
Merge VR Goggles
Pasonomi VR
PowisVR Custom Branded HMDs
Sidardoe 3D VR Headset
TaoTronics 3D VR Headset
Topmaxions 3D VR Glasses
U-Scene VR 2
VR Box
VR Elegant
Zeiss VR One

DETOUR: Mixed Reality HMDs

There remains a significant amount of confusion about the differences between Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality. (Check out our exhaustive primers on Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality for an in-depth look at the differences.) The public seems to think that AR is a phone experience, while only VR requires an HMD. Mixed Reality devices like the Microsoft Hololens use a headset to overlay 3D imagery on top of the real world. Very cool, but not Virtual Reality.

Here’s the most well known Mixed Reality HMDs:

How Virtual Reality is being used today

Unsurprisingly, the video games industry is one of the largest proponents of Virtual Reality. Support for the Oculus Rift headsets has already been jerry-rigged into games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, but newer games like Elite: Dangerous come with headset support built right in. Many tried-and-true user interface metaphors in gaming have to be adjusted for VR (after all, who wants to have to pick items out of a menu that takes up your entire field of vision?), but the industry has been quick to adapt as the hardware for true Virtual Reality gaming has become more widely available.

Virtual Reality and data visualization

Scientific and engineering data visualization has benefited for years from Virtual Reality, although recent innovation in display technology has generated interest in everything from molecular visualization to architecture to weather models.

VR for aviation, medicine, and the military

In aviation, medicine, and the military, Virtual Reality training is an attractive alternative to live training with expensive equipment, dangerous situations, or sensitive technology. Commercial pilots can use realistic cockpits with VR technology in holistic training programs that incorporate virtual flight and live instruction. Surgeons can train with virtual tools and patients, and transfer their virtual skills into the operating room, and studies have already begun to show that such training leads to faster doctors who make fewer mistakes. Police and soldiers are able to conduct virtual raids that avoid putting lives at risk.

Virtual Reality and the treatment of mental illness

Speaking of medicine, the treatment of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, stands to benefit from the application of Virtual Reality technology to ongoing therapy programs. Whether it’s allowing veterans to confront challenges in a controlled environment, or overcoming phobias in combination with behavioral therapy, VR has a potential beyond gaming, industrial and marketing applications to help people heal from, reconcile and understand real-world experiences.

Dr. Brian Jackson, a former Senior Research Scientist at Marxent, contributed to this piece. He holds a PhD in Computer Science with a focus in computer vision. 


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