What Is Virtual Reality? Technology That Breaches Borders of Users’ Imagination

VR has made its way into the entertainment, logistics, and healthcare industries with incredible success and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Contrary to popular belief, VR technology isn’t all fun and games – VR applications include training, education, and even occupational safety.

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virtual reality

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

With a revenue of $11.97 billion in 2022 and pending, virtual reality is all the hype these days, and VR headsets are slowly becoming standard household devices.

But why is virtual reality receiving all the praise, and more importantly, what exactly is it?

If you’re asking the same questions, check out this crash course in all things virtual reality that will clarify any confusion or uncertainty regarding this emerging technology.

What Is Virtual Reality? 

In layman’s terms, virtual reality (VR) is a fully immersive computer simulation that tricks the user into believing they’re a part of a simulated environment instead of the one they’re actually in. For that to happen, developers must employ software and hardware that supports the creation of immersive environments. Users sometimes have to rely on additional equipment that allows them to experience virtual reality fully.  

VR world

Photo illustration: Freepik

Virtual reality is a fully immersive simulated environment, allowing users to explore virtual worlds in 360 degrees. In other words, once a user joins a VR world via a headset, the VR technology will enable them to see a generated 3D image of the world that surrounds them.   

It’s worth noting that even decent VR technology can change our perception to the point where users can’t stand still or move their body parts, which is usually a by-product of a narrowed perception of what happens outside of virtual reality.  

For example, if a user is wearing a VR headset and playing a shooter game, they will try to avoid bullets and take shelter in the real world, even though the threat isn’t real. And if they jump out of a plane in a VR game or zip through the city as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, they will feel as if they’re really in the air and not in their own bedroom or living room.  

That said, staying for too long in a virtual reality environment often results in cybersickness, followed by nausea, headaches, and dizziness – feelings similar to motion sickness. However, not all virtual realities can lead to such extreme experiences, which leads us to the next question.  

What are the different types of virtual reality? 

Three Types of Virtual Reality 

The VR industry is far from creating an immersive virtual reality that engages all our senses the way our reality does. However, this technology undoubtedly provides a realistic sensory engagement, allowing users to fully immerse themselves in all sorts of environments, even if the concept behind them doesn’t align with our idea of reality. Still, not all VR systems are created equal, and they could be categorized in the following manner: 

  1. Non-immersive virtual reality 
  2. Semi-immersive virtual reality 
  3. Fully-immersive virtual reality 

Due to its widespread use in daily life, non-immersive virtual experiences are frequently disregarded as a distinct virtual reality genre. 

Common examples of non-immersive virtual reality are video games. Users can access virtual reality when playing a game without feeling like it entirely consumes them. Instead, they control what’s happening on the screen while still being aware of their physical environment.  

Non-immersive VR

Photo illustration: Freepik

Similarly, semi-immersive virtual realities offer a partial virtual experience. Of course, they can still make users feel like they’re in another reality without losing the connection to the physical world. One of the best examples of semi-immersive virtual reality is surgery or flight simulators that train surgeons and pilots. 

Lastly, as the name says, fully immersive virtual realities provide the most lifelike and intense experience. But, in contrast to non-immersive VR, fully immersive VR requires the use of VR headsets. These accessories allow users to disengage from the actual world and consider what they see on their screens to be the only reality there is. 

Beyond the Headset: Innovative Ways in Which Society Benefits from VR 

Society often associates VR with gaming. Although it has a tremendous effect on the gaming industry, VR is widely adopted for numerous other applications. Besides entertainment, VR can be used for business and educational purposes, making it one of the most widespread and successful innovations of the 21st century.  

  1. High-quality visualizations: Virtual reality offers high-quality visualizations that allow users to experience the feeling of roaming around virtual worlds, also known as metaverses. Not only does this feature give gamers the impression of actually being a part of something new, but it can also improve their motor skills and balance, especially in fully immersive realities. 
  2. Safe practice: Virtual reality simulations grant users a risk-free environment where they can learn a new skill or how to navigate potentially dangerous operations in the physical world. For example, medical staff can rely on VR to predict the outcome of a risky surgery, or a bomb technician can learn how to properly dispose of a bomb without putting any lives in danger.  
  3. Learning possibilities: Immersive classrooms can boost children’s engagement and help students with disabilities adapt and process new information. Besides that, interactive learning through VR allows students to interact with lessons and retain information faster.   
  4. Judgment improvement: With so many new virtual realities that offer users to test products before purchases, people can rely on VR to save time and money. So, whether you want to see the results of your new remodeling projects or test-drive your dream car, immersing yourself in virtual realities can help you make informed decisions before each purchase.  

VR Hardware Requirements  

VR hardware comprises several accessories that contribute to the user’s experience in the virtual world. Some may argue that each piece of equipment is essential for a fully immersive experience. However, the average user could still enjoy virtual reality without some of these accessories (a treadmill, for example).  

VR headset

Photo illustration: Freepik

The hardware is essential for a fully immersive experience because the equipment essentially manipulates the user’s senses, tricking them into believing the virtual world is real.  

The following list separates VR hardware into several categories: 

  • VR headsets: A virtual reality headset is a head-mounted gadget that immerses the user in virtual reality. Once a user puts on a headset, they immediately submerge into a realistic virtual environment. 
  • Motion controllers: Here we have another essential piece of equipment. Motion controllers allow users to act and control their avatars in a virtual environment. Each controller comes with ingrained infrared LEDs. As headset cameras detect and take pictures of the emitting light, the tracking system can then use that information to position controllers in the VR space.  
  • 3D mouse: As a variation of the regular 2D mouse, this VR pointing and control device can be used for moving, zooming, or rotating 3D imagery.  
  • Wired gloves: Although not as common as motion controllers, wired gloves could be a great addition to your collection of VR accessories. Wired gloves can mimic human hands’ movement, achieving a higher degree of immersion than a controller.  
  • Treadmills: VR treadmills are usually used in training sessions, allowing users to fully explore the virtual reality field. Still, VR treadmills could be used for gaming, as they would further crack the barrier between the real world and virtual reality.  
  • Optical trackers: Optical tracker is a VR hardware that, as the name says, tracks users’ positions using one or several video cameras.   
  • Scent devices: Convincing scent technology is slowly becoming available, allowing VR game developers to fill in the cracks and provide users with a fully immersive experience that will engage all their senses. The lack of smells in VR isn’t a dealbreaker, but it would be lovely if we could pick up and smell a virtual flower, wouldn’t it? 

VR Software Development Tools 

Most of the current VR content has been developed by experts using various types of 3D software. So, for example, this includes VR software development kits (SDKs), visualization software, or training simulators.  

  • VR SDK: These include the primary tools developers need to design and build virtual worlds. Think of them as building blocks every developer needs to complete a VR project successfully.  
  • Visualization software: Visualization software exists to help users experience compiled data in a virtual setting. 
  • Training simulators: They are essential in several industries, as they allow training in immersive environments. The implementation of training simulators is growing, and we’ll likely recognize them as a necessary part of employee development strategy. 

VR Use Case Examples 

Although often tied to the gaming sector only, virtual reality has significantly impacted industries ranging from entertainment to healthcare. With that in mind, here are some virtual reality applications that will further capture the essence of VR. 

  1. Entertainment: The gaming industry is the VR pioneer and continues to be the dominant representation of virtual reality. Still, the entertainment industry is trying to find ways to merge VR with other sectors. In particular, people can now watch movies in VR or enjoy a thrilling experience at VR theme parks.  
  2. Healthcare: Virtual reality is revolutionizing the healthcare sector by providing adequate training simulators, helping practitioners improve efficiency, and attending to some patients in a controlled environment. For example, a study published in September 2022 shows that patients immersed in virtual realities need fewer anesthetics than regular patients. VR could also help patients with anxiety or teach doctors-to-be how to strengthen empathy in the workplace.  
  3. Architecture: VR makes it easy for architects to finalize their visions. As VR can transform CAD models into photorealistic renderings, architects can see how their projects will turn out in the physical world. This allows them to make necessary corrections or improvements and improve efficiency. 
  4. Occupational Safety: Workplaces involving machinery and natural hazards pose a threat to workers. All workplace safety issues can be addressed using VR without jeopardizing anyone’s life.  
  5. Tourism: VR also offers a solution for those who want to visit specific destinations but can’t find the time or resources to turn that into a reality. Scrolling through the same pictures of pyramids or the Taj Mahal is outdated, as users can now partake in immersive adventures around the globe, all from the comfort of their homes.  
  6. Military: Some military exercises don’t have to involve any risks as long as participants rely on virtual reality. Of course, VR can’t replace all military activities. Still, it can drastically reduce accidents on the training field and teach soldiers how to handle unexpected circumstances better and prepare for battles.  
  7. Automotive: Virtual reality offers several improvements in the automotive industry. For example, virtual reality is an excellent traffic and vehicle behavior analysis tool for manufacturers. Before creating a new model, they can evaluate and improve the prototypes using simulated scenarios. On top of that, students can practice driving in a VR environment before getting on the road, which can only minimize the chance of accidents.  
  8. Training: As stated earlier, virtual reality significantly contributes to employee training by providing appropriate conditions that meet trainees’ needs.  

VR vs AR: What Will Dominate the Future? 

VR and AR opened doors to exciting opportunities in gaming, education, and many other fields. VR and AR can change viewers’ perceptions and enhance the observer’s reality, but they differ significantly. 

While virtual reality (VR) delivers a computer simulation of an alternate world, augmented reality (AR) only enriches our physical world. Additionally, VR is entirely virtual and can change users’ perceptions by engaging most of their senses, while AR merges fragments of digital worlds with physical reality.  

So, for example, shoppers can use AR to try on clothes and accessories or see how a new sofa would fit into their living room. In these scenarios, users can incorporate digital images into our reality but can’t fully immerse themselves in a virtual experience.  

On the other hand, VR is primarily virtual, and it replaces a real-life environment. Users can no longer see their body parts or surroundings when they put on a VR headset. Instead, they are fully immersed in the given virtual setting.  

Another difference between VR and AR is that fully immersive virtual reality can be accomplished only if a user is wearing a headset. Conversely, AR users only need smartphones to project digital images into their physical existence. 

To sum it up: 

  • VR and AR accomplish two different things using different technologies.
  • VR can be fully immersive, while AR can’t. 
  • Users can access AR via smartphones, but VR users must use a headset. 
  • VR enriches virtual reality, while AR augments physical reality. 

Key Players in the VR Industry 

VR is attractive to industry giants and startups alike. Many big tech companies, including Microsoft, Nvidia, and Samsung, are launching their own VR headsets and games, but startups such as Holoride have also significantly contributed to VR development.  

The table below shows the key players and their contributions to the VR industry: 

VR Giants: Core Services: 
Microsoft Platform development, headset manufacturing 
Oculus VR production, headset manufacturing 
Samsung Platform development, headset manufacturing 
Unity Built-in support for a number of virtual reality devices 
NVIDIA headset manufacturing, VR streaming platforms 
Holoride Development of in-car VR systems 

Virtual Reality Challenges 

Many VR challenges are left unresolved, despite tech giants working on potential solutions. That is because VR is still in its infancy, making it impossible to address all challenges.   

The top problems with VR primarily revolve around the high price tag and health effects of using VR technologies. Still, let’s not forget about other challenges, including ethical concerns that affect VR development. 

VR cyber sickness

Photo illustration: Freepik

Here are the major problems with virtual reality that remain unsolved: 

  1. Cost of virtual reality: Although VR headset manufacturers are trying to lower the cost of VR equipment, the sad truth is that VR isn’t cheap. Of course, VR is more affordable than it was a decade ago, but dipping toes into VR still requires a significant investment.  
  2. Cybersickness & health concerns: Extensive VR use leads to short-term issues, including nausea, vertigo, and poor spatial perception. Additionally, prolonged exposure to virtual reality sometimes leads to eye problems and headaches.  
  3. Loss of connection: Immersion in virtual reality is primarily an individual experience. Users can enjoy virtual reality to the point they forget about the real world. This aspect of VR could lead to addiction and isolation and even further contribute to depression and anxiety. Luckily, these extreme outcomes are rare, but they shouldn’t be overlooked.  
  4. Training simulators: Training simulators are very beneficial, as they allow trainees to make mistakes without putting anyone at risk or suffering extreme consequences. On the other hand, we should take into account that training in virtual reality isn’t comparable to training in the real world. But, as long as trainees are exposed to both VR and real-life exercises, mistakes are less likely to happen.  

Jelena is a content writer dedicated to learning about all things crypto. Her hobbies are playing chess, drawing, baking, and going on long walks. During winter, she usually spends her leisure time reading books.

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