Virtual Reality has existed in science fiction for decades, and tech manufacturers started to introduce what we would recognise as VR headsets in the 1990s.
However, it has only been in the past couple of years that the sector has started to take off.
Headsets and hardware have become more widely available and less expensive, while the amount of VR content available has also steadily grown.
VR is great for gaming. It can be used to create driving, flying, and other simulators.
It is already used in the real estate industry, in retail, in healthcare, and in training and education. It is being used in an increasing range of ways.
While it might not quite be as mainstream as mobile phones or games consoles, virtual reality is making major headway, and there are different entry points for those that are looking to get into this still emerging technology.
Headsets, whether you use a mobile or PC based headset, utilises head tracking technology. Once you are wearing the headset, the picture displayed in the headset will pitch up and down, and move from side to side, as you move your head.
Most headsets use a combination of gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, while some companies like Sony are introducing additional technologies.
Sony and Oculus use LED lights to track 360 degree rotational head movement.
Head tracking is where lag really matters. Lag is the amount of time it takes between moving your head, and the VR display moving in that direction, and is measured in milliseconds. Lag needs to be lower than 50 milliseconds, or it becomes discernible. Too much lag can cause a delay.
This not only diminishes the quality of the experience, but the delay is also one potential cause of motion sickness.
Try to ensure that the lag of your headset is less than 50 milliseconds, and that the headset offers 360 degree head movement tracking.
As well as tracking the motion of your head, the best VR sets can also track your body movement. This is especially important for control, as well as for immersion.
Once you put the headset on, you expect to see your own hands when you look down, but this isn’t possible without some form of motion tracking.
Similarly, motion tracking will detect the movement of your feet or hands. If you’re playing a football simulator, the game needs to know when you are kicking the ball, how hard you kick the ball, and even the direction in which you are kicking it.
Without motion tracking, headsets rely on the use of buttons or controllers; these can be effective and enjoyable for relatively simple games, but for total immersion, you should really be looking at full motion tracking.
Motion tracking is one area where the premium headsets and mobile headsets really differ. Mobile headsets do not usually offer any motion tracking. They may have one or more buttons on the side of the headset, or you may be able to buy a hand controller, also called a wand, which allows some input.
Premium headsets use a variety of different technologies to track your motion. Valve, for example, uses Lighthouse Technology. Base stations are placed around the room, and these effectively sweep the area with lasers, detecting movement and allowing for accurate control.
If you are buying a mobile headset, ensure that it has some means of input, typically buttons on the side of the unit. If you are buying a premium high-end set, ensure that it offers automatic motion tracking.
Eye tracking is not commonplace in VR headsets; not yet, anyway. However, it could be the missing piece of the jigsaw that offers total immersion.
Eye tracking software monitors exactly where your eyes are looking, because we don’t always look directly ahead of us in everyday life. It will enable the virtual world to focus on objects that you are actually looking at, and lose some of the pinpoint clarity of peripheral objects, which is a more natural way of displaying images when compared to how we would see objects in real life.
It is unlikely you will currently see eye tracking in mobile or high-end headsets, but this technology is worth looking for in the future.
The quality of the display matters to the quality of your virtual experience. Poor quality headsets can appear blocky and may not display properly. They can also lead to headaches and even motion sickness.
As with any display, including TVs, a higher resolution is better.
Higher resolutions offer crisper edges and text that is easier to read but a high resolution needs to be combined with a good or decent refresh rate.
For fast and intensive games, it is generally accepted that 90Hz is the minimum requirement, while simpler and less intensive apps can get away with 70Hz. Anything less than 60Hz is likely to cause motion sickness because this will cause lag, which is the leading cause of VR motion sickness.
They do not let you directly affect the virtual world, but headphones are important. While PC based systems can use the PC speakers to play sound and audio, it is more immersive and believable to have noise broadcast directly into your ears.
3D headphones are even better because they allow volume and audio depth, so you can experience passing noises, distant noises, and other effects that make the virtual world even more believable.
Surprisingly few headsets include built-in headphones, and they are another feature that are more common in more expensive, high-end headsets. If you have a choice, buy a headset with integrated headphones or offer the capability to plug your own headphones in.
Cameras And Recording Equipment
As headsets have become increasingly popular, more hardware manufacturers have expanded the range of products that they now offer.
One product that was slow to hit the market, but has now seen manufacturers including GoPro and Canon launch relevant products, is VR cameras. These obviously work in the same way as standard cameras, but they record footage that can either be used to create 360 degree video or start to record footage for your VR or AR world.
If you are interested in creating your own 360 videos, consider one of the series of VR capable cameras from GoPro.
It is possible to use an existing mobile phone handset and combine this with an inexpensive VR headset. There are plenty of 360 videos and some basic VR apps that are fun, addictive, and enjoyable, and available on Android and iPhone handsets.
However, if you want a more immersive and all-encompassing experience, you will need to consider a standalone or PC-based headset.
PC headsets offer improved graphics, a much more immersive experience, and a wider range of apps and games to experience virtual reality.
If you want something more advanced than a mobile experience, but don’t want to invest in a PC headset until you’re you enjoy the experience, you can visit a VR centre, which offers a virtual reality experience without having to invest directly in any equipment.