VR Basics: Everything You Need To Know To Get Started in 5 Minutes

Kazmuir Long
Jul 6, 2020 · 4 min read

Many of us have heard of VR by now. Videos of people with brick-sized computers on their faces have surfaced on the internet, your coworkers are talking about it during Zoom meeting downtime, and you want to know what all the fuss is about! Continue reading this article to learn the basics of virtual reality — from its conception, to use cases, down to what headset you should purchase.

What is VR? VR stands for Virtual Reality, a computer-generated environment that allows users to interact with its contents. In other words, it is the act of creating a near-reality experience, virtually. How is this done? Motion sensors and tiny LCD/OLED screens are diligently combined into an HMD, or head-mounted display (headset), that can then be bought and utilized by consumers. Once you get your hands on a headset you can download apps just like you would on your phone thanks to WebXR standards making it easy to integrate staple applications into an immersive world.

That being said, VR wouldn’t be so innovative if its only use was delivering your favorite streaming apps through a different medium, would it? It’s true, virtual reality has more prominently earned its stripes in entertainment, but the technology also has a growing presence in other industries such as education, retail, and healthcare.

“That’s nice, but how can VR help me, an individual?”

There are quite a few VR headsets available to consumers right now, and they all have different advantages and drawbacks, depending on your goal. Exercising, co-working, simulated travel, virtual-theater going, and gaming all come to mind as popular activities well suited for VR. We’ll break down what headset will be perfect for you towards the end of the article.

But first, let’s take this back a few decades (yes, decades) to when this all started. In the early 1960s, Morton Heilig patented the Sensorama, a booth meant to emulate experiences through sound, vibrations, and smells corresponding to what is shown on the screen. Virtual reality was conceptualized well before this, but the Sensorama was the first prototype encompassing its essence. Heilig later went on to create a (pretty spot-on) VR headset, without the inner-workings of today’s headsets of course, that he dubbed the “Telesphere Mask”. While Heilig was slightly ahead of his time with these inventions, this kicked off the slow progression of the VR industry for the next 50 years. We saw the first commercial application of the technology in arcades, with a recent transition to consumer use pioneered by HTC releasing the HTC Vive in 2016. The VR manufacturing race has ramped up ever since, with the most recent splash made by HTC yet again with the improved Vive Cosmos — which brings us up to speed. Now, you can get a VR headset delivered to your door that has twice the functionality of what was available 5 years ago. What are you waiting for?

“What are my options?” Let us first introduce the different kinds of headsets.

The two major differences between headsets are tethered (wired) vs. untethered (wireless). Tethered VR headsets like the Valve Index require a computer to hook up to, in return you get more processing power and lower latency for higher quality experiences. Untethered headsets require no additional setup, at the most you’ll need your phone to provide the power (such is the case with the Gear VR) or simply to download a dedicated app, which is the sole requirement for the Oculus Quest. This setup, or lack thereof, means more freedom to walk around and find that sweet spot of immersion. The trade off is the battery power is limited to a few hours maximum. Another drawback to the untethered group — all of the functionality is built into the headset, which means a slightly heavier (and less comfortable) experience.

Let’s break it down by category:

Gaming — The PSVR has the most games available by a mile, though you’ll need a Playstation to use it. If you have a powerful PC, the Valve Index will give you access to thousands of VR-ready games on Steam (which is also accessible to most other tethered headsets, but Valve has superior finger tracking controls if you’re looking for it). For a more affordable and untethered gaming experience, the Oculus Quest is perfect for casual to mid-range games, with the occasional AAA level title sprinkled in.

Business — On the enterprise side, the HTC Vive Pro Eye delivers the highest resolution to date, offering premium quality & tailored customer support to fit your organization’s needs. It also has (you guessed it) eye-tracking to top it all off with a laser-focused experience.

Exercise — Many people use VR primarily for home exercise. The Oculus Rift S is lightweight enough to maintain comfortability during an extended workout, while also providing access to some of the current leading workout games such as Audio Trip and Hot Squat which require a PC VR (aka a tethered headset) to play. But fret not, if you are more interested in an untethered workout for flexibility, there are still options in the Oculus Quest catalog such as Synth Riders and Beat Saber.

Developing — You might go by the rule of “develop for what sells” — in that case you’ll want to make your application work on both the Oculus & HTC manufactured headsets. Attempts are being made to define a standard API that will make developing for multiple VR platforms less convoluted. The Kronos group is continuing work on OpenXR, the standard that will bring this dream of simplicity to a (virtual) reality. In the time of this article it is still in its prototype stages but can be experimented with at your leisure.

I’m Kazmuir Long with VRARA Philly, you can connect with me via Twitter @KazzualGamer or comment below!

VRARA Philly

Articles covering various topics in XR from VR/AR Association (Philadelphia).