What is VR (Virtual Reality) and How Does it Work?

The abbreviation VR stands for Virtual Reality. A VR headset (or VR glasses as it is also called) is, in short, a type of glasses-like device that you clasp in front of your eyes. Inside the VR glasses is a screen that shows e.g. a digital environment, such as a gaming world.

As you move your head, different sensors in the VR headset respond to your movements and then reflect the movements of the digital pretend environment you have in front of your eyes. The whole VR concept is thus simply about creating a virtual reality.

1. Different variants of VR glasses

The simplest (and many times the most common) VR headsets actually only consist of a plastic box with two lenses mounted on the inside. On one side of the lenses in this plastic box, place your smartphone (Android or iPhone). Then, when you put the headset in front of your eyes, you see your phone’s screen through the two lenses. What the lenses do is create a stereoscopic 3D effect which gives you a depth of what you see on the phone screen.

There are also VR headsets with a built-in display. These are either connected to a computer or a game console. VR headsets with built-in display are usually much more expensive – but also provide a better experience – than simpler VR headsets that use mobile phones for the image itself.

2. What are you looking at in a VR headset?

Common to all VR headsets is that you can’t watch anything in them. Using one of the cheaper VR headsets and looking at your phone’s menu system creates, for example. just a headache. What is needed instead is either apps, games or video films (eg from YouTube) produced to be used for 3D and VR purposes. For mobile phones, there are a lot of apps and games that are produced for VR. As with all content on the App Store and Google Play, some of these apps are free, while you have to pay for others.

In the case of VR headsets that are connected to computers and game consoles, the same conditions apply here as well. All computer games do not support VR and thus cannot be played using a VR headset. Similarly, not all Playstation 4 games can be played with Sony’s own VR headset (pictured below). Without only the games that have actually been developed with or received VR support added can use the technology.

3. This is how the technology behind VR headsets works

The apps, games, and videos produced for VR all split the screen into two parts (left / right). Both parts of the screen show exactly the same but with a slight offset. The two lenses in the VR headset then make your eyes feel like the two parts of the screen are merging. This fools the eyes into thinking that there is actually a real depth in what you are looking at. In this way, the 3D effect is created.

However, 3D is nothing new and while it contributes to the overall impression, it is also combined with the function to feel how you touch your head the virtual reality is really created. Both the more expensive VR headsets and basically all of today’s mobile phones have both so-called gyros and accelerometers built in. What these sensors do is to sense in which direction and at what speed something is moving. Thus, depending on how you move your head, the headset feels this and copies the movements directly to the screen you have in front of your eyes. If you look upwards in reality, then you also look upwards at the screen inside the VR headset.

The sensors in VR headsets with built-in screens are usually more fine-tuned as they are only developed for this type of tracking, which makes them more precise. The sensors in mobile phones are not always as accurate as they are also used for many other functions (such as assisting in GPS navigation and more).

4. Accessories enhance the VR experience

To provide a more complete VR experience, there are also some accessories that can be used with VR headsets. If we look at the VR headsets that use a mobile phone as a monitor, it is usually about wireless controls that are connected with Bluetooth (Bluetooth) to the phone. With the help of these controls you can then eg. walk around games or navigate menus and the like.

The more expensive VR headsets, which are connected to a computer or game console, allow you to move around the gaming world, either with the help of a keyboard and mouse or a regular gaming control. The two top models in VR for computers today (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) allow the player to use two special controls which act as your hands in the game. With the help of these controls, the reality experience becomes even more enhanced.

5. More advanced VR features

Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have more features that further enhance virtual reality. If we ignore sophisticated techniques to track how you move your head and which direction you turn it, both headsets can actually also interpret how you move around and touch your body. This is possible by first placing so-called tracking devices at the edges of the surface you want to use to walk around. Using the included wireless controllers, you tell the system exactly which area you can move. The VR headset and tracking devices then keep track of exactly where you are on the particular surface.

The system and tracking sensors are also synchronized with the two wireless controls, allowing you (in the headset) to see exactly how to move your hands. Something that really adds an extra dimension to the experience.

6. VR headset development

VR headsets are really nothing new. Glasses-like computer devices you attach to your head have come and gone for decades. The fact that they did not break through can mainly be attributed to the fact that technology development has not really been included in the notes. The screens have not been good enough, the image update has caused car sickness after a minute and processors and graphics cards have not been able to produce enough power to provide a true-to-life experience.

In terms of technology, however, it must be considered that the time is now ripe for VR to actually function in a good way. However, the headset is still pulled with some childhood illnesses here and there. Above all, there are problems with nausea and motion sickness that the manufacturers have wrestled with. Nausea is something that easily arises when what you see in front of you (in the VR headset) does not quite match how you actually move your head. But the development is extremely fast and new solutions to these and other problems are introduced on a continuous basis.

The next step of features to further increase the illusion of reality is so-called eye-tracking. So, with the help of a built-in camera, the VR headset keeps track of where you actually look with your eyes. Which means you don’t have to turn your head to look in different directions.


We monitors and writes about new technologies in areas such as technology, innovation, digitization, space, Earth, IT and AI.

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