“I have fond memories of the development work that led to a lot of great things in modern gaming – the intensity of the first person experience, LAN and internet play, game mods, and so on. Duct taping a strap and hot gluing sensors onto Palmer’s early prototype Rift and writing the code to drive it ranks right up there. Now is a special time. I believe that VR will have a huge impact in the coming years, but everyone working today is a pioneer. The paradigms that everyone will take for granted in the future are being figured out today; probably by people reading this message. It’s certainly not there yet. There is a lot more work to do, and there are problems we don’t even know about that will need to be solved, but I am eager to work on them. It’s going to be awesome!”

On August 1st, 2012, the tech world was shaken by the release of the Oculus Rift (Fig A) Kickstarter, which achieved its funding goal of $250,000 within four hours. Until then, virtual reality was often seen as a theme park sideshow; too cumbersome and expensive to find its way into our homes. But since then, the Oculus Rift become increasingly popular and has even spawned a host of competitors in the virtual reality scene, such as HTC’s Vive, Son’y Morpheus, Samsung’s Gear VR, and Google Cardboard. With virtual reality looking to be a staple of our future, we need to honestly ask ourselves: what is virtual reality, and how does it work?


Fig A. The first development kit of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.


The consumer edition of the Oculus Rift, which does away with the blocky aesthetic and features a new, slicker design.

When we think of virtual reality, we think of a VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift. But virtual reality, strictly speaking, isn’t necessarily a VR headset- or any headset, for that matter. Virtual reality, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine  what happens in the environment; also : the technology used to create or access a virtual reality. As the definition mentioned, sight is only one component of forming a virtual reality; all of our other senses (sound, smell, touch, and taste) can also be utilized in the creation of a virtual reality, and the most effective and immersive virtual realities will likely take advantage of them. Understanding that virtual reality exists beyond the headset is critical to exploring this new technology to the fullest.

Beyond the concept of virtual reality, we should also understand the technology used in VR and how it functions. All of these VR headsets work in a similar way- they utilize a technique known as ‘stereoscopic 3D’. Stereoscopic 3D uses multiple screens displayed at slightly different angles to create the illusion of depth. The Oculus Rift employs two 1080x1200 resolution OLED screens for a 2160x1200 ensemble with a 90hz refresh rate and 110 degree field of view. Resolution (the amount of pixels displayed on a screen), refresh rate (the frequency with which an image on a screen is updated), and field of view (how much of the world can be seen at once) are all vital to maintaining the illusion of a virtual reality. If any of these elements are substandard the illusion will be broken.

The headset understands your head movement through the usage of a ‘positional tracker’, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. Positional trackers are placed in front of you and communicate with an assortment of IR-LED arrays to relay your head’s position. The accelerometer tracks the acceleration of your head using microscopic crystal structures that become stressed under acceleration, which prompts the generation of voltage, which is then interpreted. A gyroscope measures your head’s orientation, implementing a plate or ‘proof mass’ that vibrates when displaced, such as when the headset is tilted, generating voltage to be interpreted. These technologies allows it to track your head movement, which, in itself may be more complex than you originally think. There are the three perpendicular axes: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down- but there are also the ways we manipulate these axes through the rotation of our head, known as pitch, yaw, and roll. All together these are known as the Six Degrees of Freedom (Fig B.). Tracking only some of these but not the others will lead to a feeling of disconnection from your virtual body and could possibly result in overwhelming sensations of motion sickness.


Fig B. The Six Degrees of Freedom: Forward/backward, up/down, left/right, pitch, roll, yaw.

To achieve three-dimensional audio, headsets are equipped with headphones with simulated surround sound. They utilize an array of ‘virtual speakers’ to create the perception of actual surround sound. Some VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift, employ a technique known as ‘Head-Related Transfer Function’, which works in tandem with the virtual speakers in referencing data from the virtual world that could indicate changes in the source of a sound or the positioning of your head. If a sound is coming from your right and you move your head to face it, that sound will then come from directly in front of you.

The sensation of touch is being approached in multiple ways. One example of this is ‘haptic feedback’, which simulates touch through the usage of forces and vibrations. Haptic feedback ranges from simple vibrations in common game controllers to more complicated simulations of touch found in products like the Novint Falcon(Fig C.), a game controller which provides the user with three-dimensional force feedback, allowing for the simulation of touch, texture, recoil, momentum, and the physical presence of objects.


Fig C. The Novint Falcon, released in 2006, never saw much in the way of commercial success. However, recent developments in the field of virtual reality has created a small resurgence of interest in the device.

The Oculus Touch(Fig D.) takes another approach to appealing to touch, providing a more naturalistic manner of control to the individual and granting the ability to use your hand as an extension of your body, furthering the user’s immersion.


Fig D. The Oculus Touch controller is not launching with the first-wave of Oculus Rift headsets. Some see this as a mistake, while other’s see it as a beneficial, cost-cutting measure.

As you can see, virtual reality itself isn’t a technology; it is a complex and nuanced assemblage of technology. Each individual component of each individual component is the result of hundreds or even thousands of years of technological progress and development. Understanding the technology involved will better position us to handle the potential problems that may arise from the proliferation of virtual reality. Virtual reality, like 3D television or laserdiscs, could end up being a total flop- but I think the fantastic convergence of technology present in virtual reality headsets and accessories create such an unmatched sense of realism and immersion that it won’t be going away anytime soon, and could even be the most prominent method of media consumption of the future.

These are the sources consulted in the writing of this essay: