Virtual Reality sounds cool, but how does it work?

Ever want video games to feel more realistic? Ever wish you could go to a work meeting but stay at home in your pajamas? Ever want to walk around another country from another century without plane tickets or time machines? Virtual Reality (VR) aims to bring consumers an immersive experience wherever they are. Just put on your headset and be whisked to another reality. VR is becoming more and more popular as a form of entertainment, but also is being used for training purposes for surgeons and fighter pilots. In order for VR to feel like another reality it needs to respond to your movement and allow you to interact with the virtual environment. So how do these headsets work to allow you to do those things?


Examples of VR headsets including HTC, Razer’s OSVR, and FOVE. Obtained from here

Most basically when I move my head, while wearing the headset, I expect what I see to change. If my virtual friend is behind me, I want to turn my real head around and see them. This requires head tracking from the headset. Headsets use two pieces of technology to accomplish this. Just as smartphones rotate screens and count steps, the headsets have gyroscopes and accelerometers that measure tilts and changes in the motion of your head. Since your phone already has these apps available for download, a cardboard housing can turn your smartphone into a basic VR headset. For greater head tracking, headsets like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR make use of a camera trained on LEDs to tell what direction you are looking in. Even more advanced is the development of eye-tracking. With this, you can keep your head still and only moving your eyes, change your field of vision. Eye tracking makes things you may take for granted like eye contact and blurring things you’re not focused on possible.

The ability to move through the environment is also essential for immersion. If, for instance, you want to peek your head around a corner without walking forward and turning, some mechanism needs to track your motion through space. Desktop solutions to this involve attaching extra positional sensors to the headset; but if you want to walk around in your virtual environment without using a video game controller you will require some serious hardware. VR treadmills want to strap you in and let you walk free. On the treadmill, sensors in the floor react to where you try to move but the treadmill belt keeps you from walking into any real-life walls.


A person experiencing VR. Obtained from here

In order to interact with objects in the virtual world users are given hand-held controllers that interpret motion and grips. Like other video games, these controllers give you buttons to allow your character to do all the things they need to for the game or simulation, but they also include magnetic fields to track motion and get precise spatial and orientation data on where the controller is positioned. This lets you (in real life) reach down and (in virtual reality) pick up objects. Any training simulation whether it’s surgery or juggling needs to give you this sort of feedback on your hand motions. The cherry on the immersion sundae is binaural audio. This technique records and plays sounds that let you hear sounds coming from above or below you and more impressively lets you hear things as if they are far away, not just quietly. So imagine a simulation of an Amazon jungle. You hear birds squawking above and look up to see them flash by. There are vines hanging down blocking your way but you can push them aside and keep on your trek.

When VR gets fully worked out, it won’t just be for games. As I mentioned before the ability to immerse doctors and soldiers in situations they want to be prepared for, while still having the ability to hit reset if something goes wrong, will save time,  money, and likely lives. Other applications of VR include tourism (travel anywhere instantly), immersion therapy (expose yourself to your fears in a controlled, safe environment), and education (what do things look like at atomic scales?). Some even propose virtual reality capable of fundamentally changing our economy to one where we never need to leave our homes. Whether that becomes a reality or not, virtual reality is being developed to produce as lifelike an experience as possible,which will constantly blur the line between what is digital and what is real.

Bryan Visser
2013-12-04 14.06.58Bryan is a 2nd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He plans on making a career for science advocacy working at a museum or in Washington, DC. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom dancing.


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