What is VR? -- Everything You Need to Know About Virtual Reality

Posted Mon Jun 12, 2017 at 10:44 AM PDT by
gear vr

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When it comes to recent immersive tech and gaming advancements, few are as buzzworthy as VIRTUAL REALITY.

But just what exactly is VR? And which headset is right for you? Fret not! If you don't know the difference between an Oculus Rift and a Daydream View, this guide is here to breakdown the ins and outs of Virtual Reality. So, without further ado, let's dive right into...



While virtual reality in some form or another has been around for decades, the format has recently seen a major revival and performance overhaul as display and computing technologies have advanced -- providing a new level of immersion that is a far cry from the blurry, pixelated mess one might have experienced in arcades back in the 90s.

In its basic form, modern VR essentially consists of a high-resolution stereoscopic headset display with motion tracking. Likewise, some VR setups also include external motion controllers, binaural audio solutions, and more advanced spatial room sensors.

But just what do all of these elements bring to the equation?

Well, a high-res stereoscopic headset features separate lenses for the left and right eye, allowing a user to view VR images, video, and interactive experiences in full 3D -- just like one would with traditional 3D glasses you find in cinemas and home theaters. But unlike traditional 3D, a VR headset combines stereoscopic output with head tracking technology (either internal or external), a first person perspective, and a wide field of view (FOV) for peripheral vision, letting users turn their heads in order to shift their perspectives up, down, and around 360-degrees -- creating the sense that what you are seeing is actually all around you.

Various external motion controllers then bring another level of interactivity to the experience, enabling hand gestures, and button presses to enable touch, movement, and selection of virtual items.

Meanwhile, binaural audio technologies, including Dolby Atmos and DTS Headphone:X, allow sounds to move around a listener's head in a 3D virtual space through headphones, further enhancing the sense of immersion.

Finally, more advanced VR rigs also include spatial sensors or some other form of body tracking for room scale virtual reality, actually allowing users to move around a real room to accomplish movement in a virtual space. Alternatively, walking can also be simulated through omnidirectional treadmills or similar devices. 


With growing support from numerous manufacturers and tech companies -- including Google, Samsung, Sony, Facebook, and HTC -- there's now several competing Virtual Reality hardware and software platforms on the market. And when it comes to headset models, there are two primary hardware types: headsets with built-in displays and headsets with smartphone displays.

Headsets that feature integrated displays of their own usually require an external PC,  laptop, or game console to power them. And though these models tend to be more expensive, their support for powerful computer and GPU hardware allows them to achieve the best performance.

Meanwhile, smartphone compatible models typically use an inserted mobile device's display and processing power to run. And while these solutions are usually more affordable than headsets with integrated displays and PC requirements, they are also hindered by comparatively limited smartphone specs.

In addition, some fully standalone VR headsets that feature their own integrated displays and hardware solutions without the need for separate computers or smartphones are also in the works.

Here's a rundown of some of the main VR headsets available now or coming soon. Note: All listed prices reflect current retailer discounts at press time and do not include taxes.

Samsung Gear VR ($106) -  Samsung's current Gear VR headset is designed to be used with a Galaxy S8, S8+, S7, S7 edge, Note5, S6 edge+, S6 or S6 edge smartphone. Users simply need to connect their mobile device and lock it in place to start experiencing VR with up to a 2960 x 1440 resolution AMOLED display (S8). The headset features 42mm lenses with a 101-degree FOV (Field of View), and advanced distortion correction technology to minimize motion sickness. The device supports both micro USB and USB Type-C ports with a converter in-box. In addition, the 2017 headset comes with a new motion controller with touchpad and trigger for enhanced interaction, along with a strap to hold it in place when not in use. And though the headset does allow audio playback from a connected smartphone's integrated speakers, users will need separate headphones for binaural  audio support. The Gear VR is powered by the Oculus mobile VR platform. It does not currently support room-scale VR.

Google Daydream View ($70) - The Daydream View requires a Daydream-ready smartphone like the Google Pixel or Motorola Moto Z. Likewise, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ will also soon be supported. With the Pixel XL model, the headset sports a QHD 1440×2560 AMOLED display with an FOV (Field of View) of about 90-degrees. The Daydream View is available in Slate, Crimson, or Snow colors and is made with flexible and soft breathable fabrics, allowing the device to be 30% lighter than similar products while providing added comfort. To use the Daydream View, customers simply need to drop in a Daydream-ready smartphone and lock it into place. From there, the phone and headset connect wirelessly with an auto alignment system. In addition, the product includes a compact controller packed with sensors, letting customers interact with content through movements and gesture. And when not in use, the controller can slide right inside the headset for easy storage. Though the headset does allow audio playback from a connected smartphone's integrated speakers, users will need separate headphones for binaural  audio support. The Daydream View uses Google's Daydream VR platform. It does not currently support room scale VR.

Standalone Daydream Headsets - In addition to smartphone Daydream devices, the first standalone Daydream headsets are set to be released later this year. Standalone headset models will not require a smartphone or PC, and will instead use their own integrated displays and hardware optimized for VR. Daydream standalone headsets will also use new headset tracking technology called WorldSense, which can enable positional tracking to determine a user's precise movements in space for some level of room-scale VR without any external sensors. Google has partnered with Qualcomm to create the standalone headset reference design, and upcoming standalone Daydream headsets are in development from HTC VIVE and Lenovo.

Oculus Rift ($500) - Designed for use with Windows PCs and laptops, the Oculus Rift features a 2160 x 1200 OLED display (1080×1200 per eye) with a 90Hz refresh rate and a 110-degree FOV (Field of View). Built-in audio, an integrated mic, and an Xbox One controller are included as well. And in addition to the headset itself, a bundle with two Oculus Touch motion controllers ($598) is also available. Sensors for movement tracking are included with the headset and controllers as well, but buyers will need a third sensor for room-scale VR. 

Recommended PC specs:

Graphics Card - NVIDIA GTX 1060 / AMD Radeon RX 480 or greater

Alternative Graphics Card - NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 or greater

CPU - Intel i5-4590 / AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or greater

Memory - 8GB+ RAM

Video Output - Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output

USB Ports - 3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port

OS - Windows 7 SP1 64 bit or newer

HTC Vive ($799) - Like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive is designed for use with Windows PCs and laptops (though Mac support is on the way), and the headset also features  a 2160 x 1200 OLED display (1080×1200 per eye) with a 90Hz refresh rate and a 110-degree FOV (Field of View). Unlike the Oculus Rift, however, the default HTC Vive package is ready for room-scale VR right out of the box, with two wireless controllers and two base stations. In addition, the standard bundle also includes a link box, earbuds, integrated mic, Vive accessories, safety guide, and warranty card.

Recommended PC specs:

Processor - Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350, equivalent or better

Graphics - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480, equivalent or better. 

Memory - 4 GB RAM or more

Video output - 1x HDMI 1.4 port, or DisplayPort 1.2 or newer

USB - 1x USB 2.0 port or newer

Operating system - Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1 or later or Windows 10

PlayStation VR ($387) - Designed for use with a PS4 and PlayStation Camera, the PS VR headset features a 1920×RGB×1080 (960×RGB×1080 per eye) OLED display with a 110-degree FOV (Field of View) and a 90Hz refresh rate (120Hz in cinema mode). The default package also includes the Processor unit, PlayStation VR headset connection cable, HDMI cable, USB cable, Stereo headphones, AC power cord, AC adaptor, and PlayStation VR Demo Disc. In addition, a bundle ($500) with the required camera, two Move controllers, and the PlayStation VR Worlds game is available as well. Limited room scale VR is supported.


Even the fanciest VR headset is pretty useless without worthwhile content available. Thankfully, game developers, filmmakers, and various media companies are starting to embrace virtual reality with a growing library of VR experiences through several platforms and gaming solutions like the Oculus Store and SteamVR.  

Some popular PC and PlayStation VR titles currently include games like Job SimulatorResident Evil 7: BiohazardBatman: Arkham VRMinecraft VR, and Star Trek: Bridge Crew.

Likewise, many streaming services like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix have also started to offer some VR content support as well, though the latter currently only lets you watch standard videos in a virtual environment. 

Native VR videos, however, typically come in the form of full stereoscopic 3D 360-degree interactive or passive experiences -- though the quality of these titles can vary wildly. And that's where companies like Legend come into play.

Known for their visual effects work and 2D to 3D conversions, Legend is also now a prominent fixture in the emerging VR scene, where they are involved in the creative development, on-set production, and post-production of VR content, helping clients realize their budgets on screen while utilizing the tech and storytelling tools of VR to their fullest. 

For this feature, Will Maurer, Legend 3D's VP of VR and VFX, was kind enough to speak with us, offering an overview of Legend's work and the company's overarching approach to the evolving VR platform.

"I think there's a lot of opportunities in VR from the storytelling space. And I call it experiential storytelling, because you can't take the traditional filmmaking techniques and force it into VR," said Maurer.

Instead, he recommends companies really ask themselves, "Why VR?"  before approaching the format. Otherwise, users could simply be left with a lackluster experience that leaves them asking, "Why do I have this thing on my head?"

On the unique aspects of experiential storytelling, Maurer described VR cinema as being "almost a melding of a game and a narrative going back to branching narratives or choose your own adventure books."

This type of multi-path storytelling also offers a lot of potential for replay and re-watch value. "In the simplest form, you're watching an argument in front of you. One person goes to the left and one person goes to the right. I have a choice to follow one of them and then see where their story branches to or continues and then I can go back and re-watch the piece... and choose the other perspective."

And on the subject of whether or not there are any key technical requirements for compelling VR content, Maurer stressed the importance of stereoscopic imagery and 3D spatial sound, along with a need to keep compression to a minimum while seamlessly blending stitching and effects work. In essence, once the separate elements and imperfections of a video become visible, the sense of immersion really starts to collapse, and Legend is working hard with its clients to ensure that this doesn't happen.

In addition to 3D video and audio, emerging tech like HDR (high dynamic range) may also find its way into more future virtual reality content. In fact, the company recently worked on a 3D 360-degree content piece for REX Real Estate that was captured in HDR with a Red Epic camera. 

Other advances on the horizon also have Maurer especially intrigued about the future possibilities of VR experiences, including developments with room-scale VR. "I'm excited about volumetric capture. For instance, in the concert space or the sports space where you can actually go up and feel like you're in the same room and environment and actually move around." 

But rather than scour through hundreds of clips on VR app stores with smartphone headsets, Maurer actually sees a lot of potential in emerging VR arcades and venues like the new IMAX VR Centers in New York and LA. "Going back to malls and airports and movie theaters, I think that's the perfect opportunity for a captive audience. I think they trust going somewhere and paying that they are going to see quality content."

Of course, that's not to say that you can't find plenty of quality VR experiences right now if you know where to look. On that note, if you'd like to see some of Legend's VR content for yourself, be sure to check out the Kong: Destination Skull Island VR experience that the company recently worked on with ILM. He gets so close you can almost feel his breath.

So, there you have it. Those are the basics of Virtual Reality. If you still have any questions about VR, please let us know in the forums! 


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