Over the past few years, we’ve seen exponential growth in virtual reality (VR) technology, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. VR offers an entirely new experience, previously only depicted in sci-fi movies like Ready Player One or the Matrix; VR gaming brings that experience to its maximum potential, so let’s see what it entails.
What Is Virtual Reality?
The primary purpose of this technology is stated in the name itself: Virtual reality is supposed to trick the brain into believing a completely fabricated environment is real. Although it’s simple to explain, this complex task remains a challenge as the limit for what people will consider immersive inches further away.
Movies are a great example of this. Back when the first motion picture was presented, people were scared the train from the projection would run them over, as they had never seen anything like it. As decades passed, people got used to the effect of motion pictures, and we now have 3D and 6D cinematic experiences; however, in 1896, the first movie was practically virtual reality.
There is a plethora of definitions of VR today that more or less overlap in key areas. The acronym specifically refers to the fusion of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and hardware designed to bring that to life in a maximally immersive fashion. Many definitions include an “interactiveness” component, but that is not always necessary; also, the imagery doesn’t have to be entirely fictitious - it can be a 360° video of a real environment.
How It Started
If we were to go to the bottom of this rabbit hole, we would reach the old masters creating the illusion of depth in panoramic paintings; luckily, the timeline of VR technology in gaming isn’t quite as long. Still, you might be surprised how far back it actually goes and how many predecessors there are to the modern VR gaming system. We will mention those we believe to be the Oculus Rift’s most influential ancestors:
- 1929 – Link Trainer, the first flight simulator, created by Edward Link
- 1955 – Sensorama, a multi-sensory, mechanical multimodal theater built by Morton Heilig
- 1957-60 – the Telesphere Mask, the first HMD (Head-Mounted Display), also designed by Morton Heilig
- 1968 – the Sword of Damocles, the first VR/AR HMD, created by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull
- 1975 – VIDEOPLACE, created by Myron Krueger, is considered the first interactive VR system
- 1977 – Sayre Glove, invented by Daniel Sandin and Thomas DeFanti
- 1991 – Virtuality Group Arcade Machines
- 1994 – Sega VR-1, an arcade motion simulator that used a VR headset instead of a monitor
- 1995 – Nintendo Virtual Boy, the first-ever portable console that could display accurate 3D graphics
- 2016 – the Oculus Rift
After Oculus’s breakthrough, virtual game systems have become much more accessible. You can now find PC compatible, console compatible, or standalone VR systems. The games are getting more interactive, graphics are almost as good as on a console, but above all else, the immersion is on a whole new level.
The Rift was the first commercial VR gaming headset that didn’t instantly nauseate its user. Instead, Oculus was able to create a headset that allowed the wearer to play for at least 45 minutes without getting motion sickness. The test subjects for the headset included Oculus’s then-CEO, Brendan Iribe.
How Does VR Gaming Work?
The original Oculus headset was fitted with a dual-screen display, meaning it showed two images side by side, one for each eye. That is now the standard for any virtual reality headset you might find on the market. On top of the panels are lenses for reshaping and focusing the picture for each eye, creating a stereoscopic 3D image. The goggles were also equipped with sensors monitoring the wearer's head motions to adjust the image accordingly.
VR headsets are fitted with magnetometers, accelerators, and gyroscopic sensors placed inside headsets to track your movement and interactions within a virtual space. If it’s not a standalone headset, it also connects to an external computer system to access the software translating your VR experience or connect with additional programs.
The full potential of virtual reality has yet to be uncovered. The technology is still being perfected, and the innovations keep coming. However, for now, the most important functionalities that make VR experiences so immersive are:
- Field of view (FOV)
- Frame rate
- Spatial audio with quality sound effects
- Positioning and head tracking
Field of View (FOV)
FOV is a key factor in a virtual reality game system, as it needs to mimic the field of view we have in real life. Though hard to achieve, this aspect is getting better. Current VR headsets can give us a 180° visual span - for comparison, the average human can take in 220° of their surroundings.
Insufficient frame rate and slow eye-tracking were the cause of all the nausea people were getting in the beginning while trying to play VR games. Like with FOV, the frames need to move fast enough within the headset to imitate how we see in real life. Humans are most used to the 30 to 60 FPS range: Anything under 20 FPS makes us disoriented and nauseous, so VR is being pushed towards 90 FPS just to be safe, even though the human eye can’t technically detect framerates that high.
Spatial Audio Quality
Proper VR immersion is impossible without the inclusion of multiple senses. While some are less accessible, your hearing can be engaged through a pair of quality headphones. Good spatial audio with realistic sound effects makes for a more vivid experience than video alone. VR technology uses sound to simulate the audio landscape you would expect to have in the real or fantasy world of your choosing.
Positioning and Head Tracking
Positioning and head tracking are measured in the number of axes you can move along in the virtual world, while the environment adjusts to you and your position. You can explore the virtual world with three degrees or six degrees of freedom (DoF).
With 3 DoF, the headset’s position is tracked along three orientation axes. With 6 DoF, the headset can also register movement; for example, you wouldn’t just be able to look up/down, left/right, and tilt your field of view to the side - the VR headset would also register if you moved forward, backward, laterally, or vertically.
How It’s Going
The market is growing rapidly, with games constantly being created and adapted for VR and VR-related accessories popping out everywhere. Arcades are also making a comeback, as one after the other is being turned into a VR gaming room.
VR sets can be split into two categories - tethered and standalone. A tethered VR set requires a computer or console to run properly, meaning many cables need to be hooked to a PC. All these cables can be a nuisance when you are supposed to move around without catching your foot on them.
Now, if you are asking yourself how to create a VR-ready gaming PC, the good news is that you might already have it. Any PC with an i5 processor or newer would be enough, provided you have at least 8 GB of RAM.
The GPU is the most important element of a VR-compatible device: The biggest players in the industry recommend the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480, at least. Of course, the newer your VR set, the more demanding it will be, so make sure your computer meets the minimum requirements for the set you are planning to get.
If you want to try out VR with your gaming laptop, we have good news - it doesn’t need to be an Alienware-level machine to support a virtual experience. The minimum laptop specs just need to be equivalent to those of a gaming PC.
PlayStation is currently the only console that supports VR gaming. Fortunately, it has improved cable management, organizing everything using the PlayStation VR breakout box.
You have one cable that goes from the headset into the breakout box, while all the other cables go from the breakout box into the console or TV and can easily be tucked behind. This gives you more freedom and reduces headset weight while you move around shooting rogues or slicing boxes.
Standalone VR Sets
A standalone VR headset is much more appealing than a tethered one due to better mobility. It has an integrated battery and a built-in visual processor, and several sensors on the body that recognize your position in the room, providing you with stable spatial orientation.
A standalone VR set is a console in its own right - it comes with its own operating system and virtual store through which you get your games. Let’s take the Oculus Quest 2 as an example. It is considered by many to be the best gaming VR headset currently on the market: It’s a standalone VR set that can also be plugged into a computer.
It comes with a VR headset, charging cable, power adapter, two AA batteries, two touch controllers, and a glasses spacer, all of which work to provide you with the best VR experience. Of course, there are additional accessories, like hand controllers and even treadmills, designed to enhance the simulated experience of being in another universe.
At this point, it seems like the best is yet to come. The future of VR gaming looks as bright as can be, and the technology behind it has only begun its growth spurt not just in gaming but in medicine, engineering, infrastructure, and plenty of other fields.
Headsets are becoming sleeker and more mobile, providing better image quality with fewer wires. Tracking gloves and haptic sensors are replacing bulgy control systems, while AI has made such advancements that machines can learn to track our interactions in the virtual world more fluently. All in all, it’s no wonder the VR gaming industry is expected to achieve insane growth and reach $92.3 billion in market size by 2027.
Frequently Asked Questions
You only need a VR headset, but if you don’t wish to get a standalone system, you would need a PC or a console that supports VR and a headset to connect to it.
Unless you wish to use the console as a VR rig, it is not necessary. But, you should know that the only console supporting VR is the PS5; if you can’t get your hands on one, you might wish to reconsider.
For Oculus Rift, you would need a PC, as it was not a standalone system, unlike the new Oculus Quest 2, which you can use both as a standalone system or as part of a PC VR rig.
Some VR games are free, but most of those are meant to provide the user with knowledge of how VR games work. Most other games for VR must be purchased to play unless there is a giveaway on one of the platforms.
No, Xbox does not currently support VR gaming.
That depends on which headset you wish to buy. Currently, Google is distributing Google Cardboard, which is very affordable, but it’s also not exactly a VR rig as we understand it. The prices for full-blown VR rigs all surpass $500.
The options are almost limitless. Apart from VR gaming in the traditional sense, you can use it for professional purposes, like engineering, medical studies, and surgery practice, take a virtual tour of any city in the world - you name it, VR’s got it.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.