Tech Explained: Virtual Reality

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By now, most people have heard of Virtual Reality (VR), and chances are that many have also tried it out – whether using a head mounted display like the Oculus Rift, or simply attaching Google Cardboard to a smartphone. Virtual Reality is a combination of hardware that uses sensors, displays and a computer, console or phone; and software that controls the elements of the experience.
In VR, video images are sent to the headset, where they create a stereoscopic display. This works by displaying two slightly different angles of the scene to each eye, simulating depth. At the same time, the scene refreshes at least 60 times per minute. This is called frame rate and is what gives the illusion of movement. The greater the frame rate, the more realistic the VR appears.

Virtual Reality headsets also contain internal components such as a gyroscope, accelerometer and a magnetometer. These components monitor head movements so that the picture in front of the user shifts as they look around. The key with head tracking is that it needs to be almost instantaneous. If there is more than a 50 millisecond gap between when the head moves and when the image shifts, it will create a perceptible lag in the VR environment. If the refresh rate, FOV and tracking are not fast enough or are not properly synced, then motion sickness and disorientation can result.

Most companies working in VR are also working to develop realistic motion tracking. This would allow users to, for example, move their hands in real life, and have the motion replicated in the virtual environment. Some systems use wireless controllers to allow users to control action inside the VR. Others use base stations which sweep the area with lasers. These can detect the precise position of the user’s head and hands and mimic these in the VR environment. Other methods use voice controls, smart gloves or even treadmills to allow users to simulate walking around a VR environment.

Eye tracking is another development that could make VR more realistic. In eye tracking, an infrared sensor monitors eye movements inside the headset. In standard VR headsets, everything is in sharp focus. However, in real life, looking at objects in the distance blurs the foreground, and vice versa. By tracking eye movement, the software can detect where a user’s eyes are looking. It can then adjust the depth of field more precisely, providing a more realistic experience.

Binaural or 3D audio give the wearer the sense that sound is coming from behind, to the side or in the distance. Some companies are also working on adding haptics – the sense of touch and pressure. The goal is to create a more immersive experience – one in which the user feels completely immersed in an entirely digital environment. From education to medicine, from data analysis to training and entertainment, the uses for immersive VR are virtually endless. What other innovative ways are there to use VR?

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