What is Virtual Reality?

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The sudden plethora of head-mounted display products on the market suggests that virtual reality is poised to completely re-invent the gaming experience. But while the nascent mainstreaming of virtual reality is relatively recent phenomenom, the technology has been a work-in-progress for nearly half a century. In fact, the U.S. military, NASA and even the original Atari corporation all contributed efforts to manufacture an artificial sensory environment that people can interact with    

So what is virtual reality?

You know you’re in a virtual reality when your surrounded entirely by a computer-generated environment that can be sensed and interacted with in a way that makes you feel as if you’re really there. This is done by blocking out the real world and using audio, visual and other sensory feedback to immerse you in a virtual one. 

Usually this involves receiving imagery input from a computer monitor or with a virtual reality headset. The experience can also include sound played from stereo speakers as well as haptic technology that simulates touch sensations through force, vibration and motion. Position tracking technology is also often used to make movement and interacting in the 3D space as real as possible. 

Earliest Devices

In 1955, an inventor named Morton Heilig came with the concept of what he called “experience theater,” a kind of machine that can play films while engaging all of the viewer’s senses to draw the person into the story. In 1962, he unveiled the Sensorama, a prototype that featured a large stereoscopic 3D display screen, stereo speakers and an aroma diffuser. Sitting in the contraption, viewers can even feel the wind blowing thanks to the clever use of the air tunnel effect. Clunky and ahead of its time, the idea died because Heilig wasn’t able to get financial backing to further its development.

In 1968, Ivan Sutherland, widely regarded as the father computer graphics, built the world’s first virtual reality headset. Nicknamed “The Sword Of Damocles,” the device was essentially a head mounted display system that used computer software to project a simple graphic. A unique head-tracking feature made it possible to alter the user’s viewpoint based on the position of the gaze. The big drawback was that the system was massively large and had to be hung from the ceiling rather than worn. 

The 80’s

The ability to simulate a sense of physical interaction with the graphics environment didn’t come along until 1982 when employees of Atari’s virtual reality division embarked on their own project to develop VR products. The team invented a device called the DataGlove, which were embedded with optical sensors that detected hand movements and converted them into electrical signals. The PowerGlove, a controller accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System was based on the technology and was released commercially in 1989.

During the 80’s, the U.S. Air Force also made use of early VR technology to create a head-mounted device called the Super Cockpit, which simulated an actual cockpit to train fighter pilots. Separately, NASA developed the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation or VIEW to experiment with virtual environments. The system integrated a head-mounted display with the DataGlove and a sensor-equipped full body garment that relayed the motions, gestures and spatial positioning of the wearer.

The 90’s

Some of the most ambitious attempts to deliver a consumer VR product for the masses took place right before the turn of the century. The primary application this time was gaming. 

In 1990, Jonathan Waldern debuted an arcade system that took advantage of VR’s immersion capabilities. His “Virtuality” line of gaming products comprised of a headset connected to either a sit-down or stand-up arcade pod with built-in controllers that allowed players to explore virtual environments. The arcade systems, which cost 3 to 5 dollars to play, didn’t quite catch on. 

A year later Sega launched the Sega VR, a headset for home gaming consoles. Later, competitors launched the Forte VFX1, designed to work with PCs, the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a VR Helmet, and the Sony Glasstron, a stand-alone pair of virtual reality glasses. They were all in one form or another, plagued by glitches typical of new, somewhat unsophisticated technologies. For example, the Nintendo Virtual boy came with a low-res display that caused headaches and nausea for some users.       

Renewed interest

As many of the devices in the 90’s flopped, interest in VR waned over the next decade until 2013, when a company named Oculus VR launched a crowdfunding campaign on the site Kickstarter to raise money for the development of a commercial virtual reality headset called the Oculus rift. Unlike the head-mounted systems of old, the prototype they came up was a lot less clunky and featured much improved graphics technology -- all at a consumer-friendly price point of $300 for early pre-orders.

The buzz surrounding the generating campaign, which raised over 2.5 million dollars, soon caught the attention of many in the tech industry. About a year later, the company was acquired by Facebook for 2 billion dollars, a move that in effect announced to the world that the technology may indeed be ready for primetime. And since beginning of this year, a polished consumer version can now be ordered starting at $599.99. 

Along the way, other prominent players have also jumped into the fold as the likes of Sony, Samsung and HTC announcing their own gaming headsets. Here's a brief rundown of the latest and upcoming product releases: 

Google Cardboard

Instead of trying to best other competitors with a device, the search giant chose attract consumers by going low tech. Google Cardboard is simply a platform so that allows anyone reality who owns a capable smartphone to get a virtual reality experience. 

At a starting price of only 15 dollars, users get a head mount cardboard kit that can be easily assembled. Simply insert your smartphone, fire up a game and you're set. Those who prefer to make their own headset can download the instructions from the company's website

Samsung Gear VR

Last year, Samsung and Oculus teamed up to develop the Samsung Gear VR. Somewhat similar to Google cardboard in that the kit combines with smartphone such as the Galaxy S7 to deliver the immersion environment. The Samsung-compatible phones are Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, S6 and S6 edge, S7 and S7 edge. 

So what can you do with a $199 helmet that you can't do with Google Cardboard? Well, for one, the Gear headset comes with additional sensors for better head tracking for a smoother sense of immersion and minimal latency. Samsung and Oculus has also calibrated its software and games to integrate seamlessly with the headgear.  

HTC Vive

Hitting the market just recent is the HTC Vive, which has been widely praised for offering one of the best virtual reality experiences out there. Packed with a pair of 1080x1200 high-resolution displays, more than 70 sensors and a pair of motion controllers, the system enables players to maneuever within a 15x15 feet space.

The system connects to your PC and includes a built-in front facing camera that blends together real life objects and virtual projections in the visual space. The big advantage the Vive has over Oculus rift is the ability to engage the VR field with hands and body as well as your eyes and head, though it appears that such capabilities will eventually come to Oculus Rift. 

The entire system retails for $799 on the HTC Vive website. Currently, a selection of 107 games are due to arrive for the virtual reality format. 

Sony PlayStation VR

Not to be outdone by its competitors, Sony announced that it will release its VR device in October of this year -- in time for the holiday shopping season. The head-mounted display is designed to work in conjunction with the Sony Playstation 4 and comes equipped with a 5.7-inch OLED screen with a refresh rate of 120Hz. 

It's also compatible with Playstation accessories such as the Move Motion controllers and camera, though some reviewers note that they don't work together as seamlessly as the HTC Hive system. What the platform has going for it is the wide range of gaming options that the Sony system can deliver. Pre-orders starting at $499, through retailer Gamestop, sold out within minutes.