What is Virtual Reality? Explain It Like I’m Five

by Chris Von Wilpert, BBusMan • Last updated January 3, 2024

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What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is the exciting world where digital environments come alive, letting users explore amazing new experiences. This cutting-edge technology transports us beyond our daily routines without even taking a step. Fancy a trip to Mars, connecting with friends overseas, or swimming with dolphins from your living room? VR is poised to make it all possible!

Virtual reality fast facts

  • Fully immersive VR is ideal for high-stakes training in medicine and the military.

  • VR replaces your whole view with a digital world, while AR adds digital layers to your real-world view.

  • The Meta Quest series, especially the latest model, is a top pick for a standalone, high-performance VR headset.

  • There are about 171 million active VR users worldwide, with gamers being the top users, particularly in the VR gaming market valued at $12.13 billion as of 2022.

  • The global video game market, driven by non-immersive VR, hit $159.3 billion in value in 2020.

Vivid colors and dynamic patterns envelop a VR user, showcasing the technology's power to create engaging, sensory-rich environments. Photograph: Meadows School of the Arts.

What are the 3 types of virtual reality?

There are three primary types: non-immersive, semi-immersive, and fully immersive VR. Each offers a unique experience, shaped by the degree of immersion and interaction they provide.

Non-immersive VR is the most accessible and widespread. Picture sitting at your computer, playing a 3D game. You're in a virtual world, but still aware of your real surroundings. It's VR with a safety net, not fully plunging you into another realm. This type is common in video games and online virtual worlds. According to a report, the global video game market, largely driven by non-immersive VR, was valued at around $159.3 billion in 2020.

Semi-immersive VR offers a deeper dive. It's like being in a high-tech classroom, where large projection screens transport you to a different place. However, you're still partly in the real world. It's popular in educational and training environments. For example, flight simulators used for pilot training are semi-immersive, providing a realistic cockpit environment.

Fully immersive VR is the ultimate virtual experience. It demands specialized equipment like headsets, gloves, and sometimes full-body suits. This type truly transports you to another world, making you forget the real one. It's widely used in advanced gaming, medical training, and military simulations.

What is the best type of virtual reality?

Fully immersive virtual reality (VR) is arguably the best among VR types because it offers a complete escape into a virtual world. It's like stepping into a different universe where everything you see, hear, and feel is digitally created. This is perfect for training in fields like medicine or the military. For example, doctors can practice surgeries without real-life risks, making learning safe and effective.

In entertainment, fully immersive VR takes gaming to another level. Gamers love being in the heart of the action, and this VR type does just that. It's like being the main character in a movie, not just watching it.

Beyond training and fun, fully immersive VR helps people understand different life experiences. It can simulate what it's like to live with certain disabilities, building empathy in a way that's unique to this technology. So, fully immersive VR is not just the most advanced form, but also the most impactful, offering experiences that are closest to real life.

What is the difference between VR and AR?

VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) are both immersive technologies, but they differ significantly in how they blend the digital and real worlds.

VR creates a completely virtual environment. When you use VR, it's like being transported to a different world. Everything you see and interact with is digitally generated. This is achieved using devices like VR headsets and sometimes additional equipment like gloves or bodysuits. 

Augmented Reality (AR), on the other hand, is more about adding digital elements to your real-world view. It doesn’t create a new world, but layers information or images over what you normally see. For example, using an AR app on your phone, you might see animated characters or directions overlaid onto the real world around you. It's like having a layer of digital information on top of reality. AR is used in many practical applications, such as navigation, where digital directions appear over the real streets as you look through your phone or AR glasses.

So, the main difference is how they interact with reality. VR replaces your entire view with a digital world, great for immersive experiences. AR adds to your current environment, augmented the real world with digital details.

A person engages with a holographic interface through augmented reality glasses. Photograph: ArchDaily.

What hardware is used for virtual reality?

Headsets are the most popular form of VR hardware. The Meta Quest series offers some of the best VR headsets out there. The latest Meta Quest model is a top pick for a standalone headset. It's really comfortable to wear and has great screens that make everything look clear and bright. This headset is powered by a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, making it much more capable than the earlier Meta Quest models, especially in handling graphics-intensive games and applications.

Older Meta Quest models like the Meta Quest 2, meanwhile, offer a great value for those on a budget. Meta Quest 2 is wireless, making it convenient for extended use, and boasts fast-switching LCDs with a resolution of 1832x1920 per eye. This translates to a crisp, smooth visual experience with a 90Hz refresh rate. It's an ideal choice for VR newcomers or those not looking to invest heavily. 

For console and PC gamers, there are specialized VR headsets. The PlayStation VR is designed for PlayStation users, featuring dual 2K OLED HDR screens for a high-quality, immersive experience. It also includes advanced features like eye tracking and headset haptics. PC users can opt for the HP Reverb G2 or the Valve Index VR kit, which are also known for their high-resolution displays, wide field of view, and high refresh rates.

What equipment is needed for virtual reality?

To set up a virtual reality (VR) environment, several key pieces of equipment are needed:

  1. VR headset: This is the most crucial piece. Headsets range from high-end models with advanced features to more affordable, basic options. For instance, the Oculus Quest 2 is a popular choice, and it's recommended to get additional accessories like the Elite Strap for better comfort and extended battery life.
  2. Dedicated virtual gaming room: Having a room dedicated to VR is important. It should have enough space for your gaming chair and desk, as well as your VR peripherals. Ensure there's no direct sunlight and minimal reflective surfaces, as these can interfere with VR equipment.
  3. Base stations and trackers: These are used for tracking the movements of your VR headset and controllers. For some VR systems like the HTC Vive, external tracking sensors are required, while others like the Oculus Quest 2 have built-in sensors. Base stations should be positioned strategically in the room for accurate tracking.
  4. High-quality sound system: Good audio enhances the VR experience. Consider surround sound systems or high-quality headphones for a more immersive experience.
  5. Cockpit & seats: Especially for racing games, a cockpit and seat setup can enhance the realism of the experience. These setups often include features like built-in speakers and vibration motors.
  6. Replacement cushions: For comfort, having replacement cushions for your VR headset and controllers is important. They provide extra support and can replace worn-out cushions.

What are the benefits of VR?

Virtual Reality (VR) offers a range of benefits across various fields:

  • Education and training: VR provides immersive learning experiences, making complex subjects more engaging and understandable. It's used for medical training, flight simulations, and technical skill development, offering realistic, risk-free environments for practice.
  • Entertainment: VR revolutionizes gaming and media consumption by offering immersive, interactive experiences, making users feel like they're part of the story or game.
  • Healthcare: Beyond training, VR assists in therapy, such as treating PTSD, phobias, and pain management, by creating controlled environments for safe exposure and relaxation techniques.
  • Business and work: VR enables realistic simulations for architecture, engineering, and real estate, allowing professionals to visualize and interact with their projects. It also facilitates remote collaboration and giving virtual presentations and tours to clients, allowing people to interact in a virtual space.
  • Accessibility: VR offers experiences that might be physically or geographically inaccessible, like virtual travel or attending events virtually, making these experiences more inclusive. This was a very valuable feature during COVID lockdowns.

A military professional uses a tactical VR headset, demonstrating the practical, high-stakes applications of virtual reality in training and operations. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

What are the disadvantages of VR?

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is groundbreaking, yet it isn't without its drawbacks. 

One major disadvantage is cost. High-quality VR headsets and the necessary accompanying hardware can be expensive. This cost barrier limits access for individuals and small businesses, making VR a technology more accessible to those with higher budgets.

Another concern is the potential health and safety issues associated with VR use. Users can experience motion sickness, eye strain, and even headaches during or after using VR. 

Lastly, VR faces technical and content limitations. Issues like latency, lower resolution, and a limited field of view can detract from the immersive experience. 

Additionally, the VR content market, while growing, still lacks a wide variety of high-quality, diverse content due to the difficulty of developing compatible apps and creating fresh content.

Who uses VR the most?

The usage of Virtual Reality (VR) varies across different demographics and industries. As of 2023, there are approximately 171 million active VR users worldwide, with 65.9 million of them in the United States, which accounts for about 15% of the country's population. 

In terms of demographic trends, younger individuals, particularly those aged between 25 to 34 years, are more likely to use VR devices. This age group accounts for 23% of VR/AR device users. There’s also a slight gender disparity in VR usage, with 57% of VR or AR device owners being male, compared to 43% being female.

The largest segment within the VR market is gaming and entertainment, holding 40.5% of the market share. The VR gaming industry itself had a market size of $12.13 billion as of 2022. Gamers are the #1 segment in the VR market. Headsets such as the PlayStation VR are specifically tailored to meet the needs and preferences of gamers.

How does VR affect humans?

Virtual Reality (VR) has both physical and psychological effects on users. Physically, issues like headaches, eye strain, and cybersickness, a form of motion sickness characterized by nausea and disorientation, have been reported. These effects are often due to the disparity between visual input and physical motion in VR environments.

Psychologically, VR can influence cognitive functions and emotions. A study at the University of California showed that VR environments could lead to significant alterations in brain function, affecting neurons associated with spatial learning. Additionally, research has found correlations between VR and amplified negative emotions during gameplay, suggesting a stronger emotional imprint compared to traditional 2D gaming.

A young individual athlete wears a VR headset. Photograph: Georgetown University.

Are we living in a virtual reality?

The idea that we're living in a virtual reality is really interesting, but right now, it's just a cool idea, not something that's actually proven. This theory is called the "Simulation Hypothesis." It's like what you see in movies like "The Matrix," where the world is actually a super advanced computer program. But in real life, we don't have any solid proof that this is true.

Scientists and tech experts haven't found any real signs that our world is a virtual simulation. Everything we know about science and the universe doesn't really point to us living in a big computer game. Sure, virtual reality (VR) technology is getting better and makes some digital stuff seem super real, but that's not the same as saying our whole world is digital.

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