The whole world seems to be talking about VR at the moment, so we've broken down exactly how the tech works, and why 2016 is the year to get involved.
The whole world seems to be talking about VR at the moment, from Oculus Rift to Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard. But how does it work? Want to wow your friends with your tech knowledge? No problem: Here’s everything you need to know about…
Virtual Reality (VR) technology
What is VR?
Although the technology behind virtual reality is pretty complex, the theory is very simple: what if we could simulate a new world in front of our eyes so accurately that we could trick our brain into believing it? VR uses smart headsets to do just that, creating virtual environments that you can hear, see, and explore to such a degree that they feel completely immersed within that space. And it’s not some farflung pipe dream: VR is real, and available now.
How does it work?
Tricking your brain is no mean feat, so creating a convincing feeling of sensory immersion takes a lot of computing power and a boatload of sensors.
Visuals are arguably the most important aspect, so let’s start there. Our eyes are a certain width apart, which means when we look at an object, each eye sees a slightly different perspective of that object. Your brain then processes these two images to form a 3D image. VR Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) work in the same way, by simulating both the left and right eyes’ perspectives with two side-by-side images (called ‘stereoscopic imaging’).
The second part of the process is to use an OLED display (or two), hi-res and large enough to create an immersive field of vision – i.e. as far as you can see from left to right and top to bottom. Realistically, that’s around 110 degrees. Combine these together and hey presto, you have a whole new world in front of your very eyes.
As important as a detailed, immersive picture is the headset’s ability to track your head movement as you look around the virtual world, with no lag or latency. This requires a heady cocktail of sensors, including gyrometers, accelerometers and more. For the uninitiated, these are the sensors built into devices to allow them to detect movement and tilt. In your phone, for instance, the gyrometer and accelerometer help do things like rotate the screen when you hold it in landscape, or help track your steps as you walk.
In a VR headset, they monitor the exact position of your head across the ‘six axis of freedom’ pictured above (that’s two directions of pitch, yaw and roll, to any aspiring pilots out there).
As for simulating the rest of your senses? Well, it can all be done. Some VR headsets have been successfully combined with 360 degree treadmills, which let you run around as you would in real life. That’s a complicated set up, but most HMDs are being made compatible with handheld controllers, making them perfect for gaming.
Surround audio is a common feature in most virtual reality HMDs now, and there are even devices such as Oculus Touch that can simulate tactile feedback in your hands. In short: the technology to simulate almost every sensory experience in a virtual world exists, and it exists today.
How long has VR been around?
Conceptually-speaking, virtual reality has been around since the 1950s, though it wasn’t until the 60s that it started to find some rudimentary uses, mainly in the military for flight simulation. As early as 1968, American computer scientists Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created what is widely considered to be the first ever virtual reality headset, named ‘The Sword of Damocles’ because it was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling.
Sega and Nintendo both flirted unsuccessfully with VR in the early 90s, leaving virtual reality firmly in the realm of science fiction until very recently. In 2011, Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey – then just 18 years old – managed to pull together a working prototype for a VR headset in his garage, and followed that up by raising nearly $2.5 million through Kickstarter. The Oculus Rift headset was born, and the tech world took notice, with Facebook snapping up Oculus for a cool $2 billion (plus Facebook stock). Oculus is far from the only player, however – the likes of Samsung, Sony, Microsoft and HTC are all responding with their own products.
How can I experience VR now?
Right now? There are a few options available that use your smartphone’s computing power. The Samsung Gear VR has been out since December last year, and features head-tracking, a touchpad for control on your right temple, and a beautiful Super-AMOLED display for Samsung Galaxy owners. If you’re after a cheap alternative, you could try Google Cardboard – a simple cardboard VR headset that fits almost any phone, and works with certain apps to create immersive, 3D visuals.
If you’re hoping to start playing games console and PC games in full VR, well, you’ll have to wait unless you know someone with an early development kit for one of these headsets. Don’t fret, though: you came at just the right time.
The first commercially available Oculus Rift headset will arrive on 28 March, priced at £500 in the UK. Although there are no official release dates for any competitor products, Oculus will almost certainly not be the only company releasing a fully-fledged VR HMD in 2016 – both the Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive are due for release in 2016, and other products from competitors can’t be that far behind.
What can VR be used for?
Although VR has advanced the video gaming space primarily, plonking you firmly into the action like never before (as seen in the Crytek demo below), the technology is taking hold in multiple industries. For the second year in a row Sundance Film Festival has featured immersive, three dimensional films that use much of the same technology, allowing you to look around scenes and experience them as though you were present.
VR will also increasingly have an important role to play in training scenarios. It’s already used in the military to train soldiers and prepare them for combat situations, but it can also be used for doctors, pilots and countless other professions to practice and learn their craft in a safe way.
What does the future hold?
The near future is incredibly exciting – we’re clearly on the precipice of something that could completely change the way we live. The sci-fi dreams that started with Star Trek’s Holodeck are now almost within reach, and VR has the potential to make a tremendous, positive impact on lots of different industries, as well as changing the way we experience TV, film, video games… Even holidays.
One huge addition to the second generation of VR HMDs will likely be eye-tracking, which will move the scene based on where you look, rather than just how you tilt your head. The technology is out there – it exists in a few laptops and is even being built into games such as Ubisoft’s The Division, but it’s not currently supported by any VR headsets.
Beyond all that, the future of VR will be very reliant on how successful and immersive the first generation of VR HMDs are. Oculus has already promised the next generation of Oculus Rift will arrive within the next two to three years, so the technology is clearly moving at a rapid pace. Our advice? Just sit back and enjoy what promises to be an exciting year.
What’s next in VR? VR is set to make a big splash at Mobile World Congress 2016 – click here to see what some of the UK’s leading tech journalists are looking forward to most…
By Pete Dreyer