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What is virtual reality? Everything you need to know

VR is set to take over this year, but what is virtual reality? We take a look at what exactly the VR revolution has in store and how you can best experience it.

If there’s one big tech story of 2016 it’s Virtual Reality. As smartphones struggle to innovate, and a general sense of stagnation begins to creep into the tech sphere, VR promises to revitalise interest in the sector with a genuinely new experience.

So what is virtual reality and how do you go about experiencing it? You’ve probably heard about the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but VR isn’t limited to these two companies. Everyone from Sony with its Playstation VR, to Samsung with the Gear VR headset, is getting in on the action.

With the first real VR headsets, Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, arriving in the next two months, now is a great time to take a look ahead at what the coming VR revolution has in store.

What is VR?

This may seem redundant but virtual reality is exactly what it sounds like. Using a VR headset, you are put into a 3D simulated reality which you can look around in 360 degrees, just like in the real world. You can usually interact with the virtual environment, and, in some cases, even move around.

VR headsets use stereoscopic displays to immerse you in the simulated world, and many will come with controllers that allow you to see your hands in front of you, allowing you to interact more fully with elements of whichever virtual experience you’re playing.

Related: Playstation VR vs HTC Vive

samsung gear VR

The goal is to align the person’s head and eye movements with changes in the virtual world to create the illusion of an alternative reality.

VR can be used to describe fairly simple virtual experiences, such as looking at 360 degree photos as if you’re in the actual environment, and much more complex experiences such as VR games and interactive films.

VR is also distinct from Augmented Reality, or AR, which is a term used to describe when virtual images and simulations are overlaid onto real environments. The Microsoft HoloLens, a holographic computer built into a headset, is the most salient example of an AR headset.

VR jargon and what it means

As with any new technology, the advent of virtual reality brings with it a host of new specifications, measurements, and jargon – most of which can seem slightly confusing at first.

Here’s a list of some of the main specs you’ll be hearing about and what they actually mean in practice.

Resolution – It seems obvious, and anyone who knows anything about screens, whether phone or TV, will know what resolution means. But when it comes to VR, it can be slightly confusing. Some VR headsets will use one screen which outputs two images, while others will have two screens.

Therefore, you might hear that a headset has two resolutions, one which relates to the resolution of each individual screen, and one for the combined resolution of the two. Most resolution measurements will sound familiar to anyone who knows about screen tech – the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both have two 1,200 x 1,080 pixel OLED displays.

Of course, the higher the resolution, the better the picture and overall experience will be. But it’s important to note that because the screens are so close to your eyes, you will notice the individual pixels much more than when watching TV or looking at your phone.

Field of view – Many of the companies putting out VR headsets will make a big deal out of their respective device’s field of view. Most will be around the 100 degrees mark. To put that in context, humans are capable of perceiving up to 180 degrees horizontally without moving their eyes.

When it comes to VR then, the bigger the field of view, the more immersive and realistic an experience you’ll get.

Refresh rate – Another term anyone familiar with display tech will understand. Essentially this is the number of frames per second the screen will display, pretty simple stuff. When it comes to VR, refresh rate is even more important as a higher rating helps heighten the feeling of realism.

So whereas a monitor with a 60Hz refresh rate will look fairly smooth, when it comes to a headset that’s trying to create a sense of virtual reality, a higher rate means a better experience. Anywhere from 90 to 120Hz will make for a smooth and immersive VR excursion.

Persistence – Persistence refers to the length of time each pixel in the display remains lit, and is important when it comes to limiting motion sickness. A full persistence display renders a frame and shows it on-screen until the next frame. With VR, that causes problems with judder and motion blurring as the frame is only correct in relation to where you’re looking. That means if you’re turning your head continuously and the refresh rate isn’t high enough to keep up with your movement and re-render each frame in relation to where you’re looking, you’ll begin to feel the effects of motion sickness as the information on screen isn’t keeping up with your movements.

With low persistence, the VR display will only light the correct pixels for as long as you’re looking in the right place, and will immediately blank them out once the scene isn’t relevant to your head movement. With a high enough refresh rate, this continuous lighting and darkening of pixels becomes imperceptible to the human eye, resulting in a much smoother and less nauseating, experience.

How to try VR

It seems more and more ways to experience virtual reality are cropping up every day. Smartphone makers such as Samsung and LG are investing heavily in VR with their Gear VR and 360 VR headsets respectively, while Google offers the cheapest way to get involved with its cardboard viewer that turns your phone into a virtual reality headset.

In short, you don’t have to shell out a load of cash to try VR these days, and although the best VR experiences come with the higher-end headsets, virtual reality is now available to all, in some form.

Here’s a list of some of the ways you can get involved in this whole VR thing:

Google Cardboard

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get started with VR. On the most affordable end of the spectrum is Google Cardboard. This foldable VR viewer turns your smartphone into a headset and can be ordered online now for as little as £10.

Star Wars Cardboard

You can order your viewer from the Google Cardboard website, where you’ll see that phones from 4 to 6 inches are supported. Once you get your viewer, it’s simply a case of downloading the cardboard app from either the Google Play Store or the App Store (Yes, Google lets iPhone users in on the action too), sliding your phone into the cardboard contraption, and choosing a VR experience.

There’s everything from 360 degree YouTube videos, to VR versions of Google Earth, games, and short films to check out. So if you want a cheap and easy way to sample VR, Google Cardboard is the way to go.

Gear VR

Further up the scale, the Samsung Gear VR will also turn your phone into a virtual reality headset, as long as it’s a Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, or Galaxy Note 5, that is.

Video: Watch people try the Samsung Gear VR

This headset is designed by Oculus, and works on the same principle as Cardboard. Simply download the Oculus Store app on your smartphone, strap your phone into the Gear VR, and you’re ready to go.

It’ll only cost you around £100 depending on which model you get, and is available now. But don’t forget you need a pricey Samsung smartphone to use it.

LG 360 VR

LG recently unveiled its VR contribution in the form of the LG 360 VR headset. Along with the company’s 360 camera – which has an equally uninspired name: the LG 360 Cam – it’s part of the company’s attempts to embrace VR and is one of a range of perpherals LG announced to accompany the launch of its LG G5 smartphone.

The LG 360 VR is powered by connecting it to the G5, and unlike Google and Samsung’s efforts, 360 VR has built in screens, which offer a 960 x 720 resolution per eye. There’s also a built-in headphone jack and head tracking, which means sounds will get louder and softer depending on where you move your head.

It’s also incredibly light, weighing just 100g, meaning it will be much more comfortable than both higher end headsets such as the 610g Playstation VR, and lower end alternatives such as the 310g Gear VR.

Related: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive

LG 360 VR

In terms of what you can actually do with it, the 360 VR headset is compatible with YouTube’s VR channel and Google Cardboard apps.

There’s no official word on how much the 360 VR headset will cost but it should be available shortly after the G5 hits shelves in April.

Watch our LG 360 VR hands-on video

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Playstation VR

Next up is Sony’s Playstation VR, and this is the where real virtual reality starts. The headset only works with the PS4 and offers a much more affordable option than the high-end HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

Officially unveiled at an event in mid-March, Sony’s headset renders games at an impressive 120 frames per second. That’s higher than both the Rift and Vive’s 90 frames per second, although the 100 degrees field of vision is 10 degrees less than both.

Unlike other headsets, Playsation VR features one screen which offers a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution overall. That works out to 960 x 1080 per eye. Not bad, although both the Rift and the Vive feature two 1,200 x 1,080 pixel OLED displays.

Related: Playstation VR vs Oculus Rift

PlayStation VR

Of course, with real VR comes a bulkier headset, and Playstation VR comes in at a hefty 610 grams. Still, at £349, it’s incredibly affordable in comparison with the Rift and Vive, and as such, will probably be the way most people experience VR for the first time.

At £349/$399, Playstation VR will likely be the way most people experience real virtual reality, especially considering there’s no need to spend thousands on a PC capable of running the headset. You can pick up Playstation VR when it launches in October, or pre-order one right now.

Oculus Rift

The first of the two big VR headsets, the Oculus Rift is probably the one you’ve heard most about. Oculus VR started out as an independent, crodfunded project, before Facebook bought the company in 2014.

With a 1,080 x 1,200 resolution per eye, a 110 degree field of vision, and the addition of two ‘Touch’ controllers that allow for in-depth interaction with the virtual world, Oculus Rift is one of the most exciting VR products of 2016. Those controllers, though, are not included in the bundle and they won’t be available until later in 2016.

It also has a 90Hz refresh rate and is lighter than Playstation VR at 440g.

The Rift works by plugging into a Windows or Linux-based PC and comes with sensors in the headset as well as an external tracking sensor to accurately detect head movement.

Video: Evan Kypreos unboxes the Oculus Rift

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Although this will undoubtedly be one of the best ways to experience VR, the Rift will set you back £499/$599, and that’s before you factor in any PC upgrades you’ll need in order to run the software properly. You can check out the recommended PC requirements on the Oculus website.

If you’ve got the cash and the computer, the Oculus Rift ships as of March 28 and you can pre-order now.

HTC Vive

Finally, the HTC Vive is the priciest option on our list, but it might just be the best. Valve and HTC’s headset works by plugging into PCs using Steam, and is the only VR offering that will let you move around within the virtual world.

Related: 9 awesome virtual reality experiences

Watch our HTC Vive hands-on vide

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Using laser emitting Lighthouse base stations and a series of trackers built into the headset and controllers, the HTC Vive can track your movements within a 15 by 15 ft area. That makes all the difference to how immersive the VR experience feels.

In terms of specs, HTC’s headset matches the Oculus Rift with a 1,200 x 1,080 resolution per eye, 110 degree field of vision, and 90Hz refresh rate. But it’ll cost you slightly more at £689 and again, that’s before you factor in buying or upgrading your PC.


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At 555g, it’s also heavier than the Oculus Rift. But a neat little extra is a built-in front facing camera which allows you to see what’s going on in the real world around you without taking the headset off. It also means that we could see some augmented reality integration in the future.

As far as VR goes, the Vive is as good as it gets. But it is the priciest option and, like the Rift, requires a pretty pricey PC setup in order to use. If you’re tempted by HTC’s device, it starts shipping in early April and you can preorder now.

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