What is virtual reality?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

You cross the ice and reach a crevice. You look down and see how deep it runs, how dangerous a fall it would be. With a running start, you hop over it and continue along the icy path. When you enter a valley, a roar echoes from the right. A behemoth 50 feet tall stomps toward you. You follow it with your eyes as it reaches you, then steps over you. It walks out of sight. You once again are alone in this windy valley in icy Antarctica.

This is a scene in Edge of Nowhere, an upcoming computer game that will use the Oculus Rift headset to bring you to a monster-ridden version of Southpole. In a couple of months such immersive games will be available to everyone thanks to the release of virtual reality headsets.

“Virtual Reality is a set of technologies that are aimed at fooling your senses into believing that you’re in a different environment than the real world,” said Kim Pallister, director of content strategy for Intel’s Visual Computing Group.

Now you can duck to see what is on the floor, lean out a car window to watch the scenery

One of the first VR (virtual reality) games coming out is The Gallery from Cloudhead Games, where you walk around strange worlds and solve puzzles. Denny Unger, Creative Director of Cloudhead, said, “I usually start off by telling people that this generation of VR hardware is more like the first generation holodeck. The problem then becomes proving to them just how apt that description is and the only way to do that is to get them in a headset, in a walking volume, and with hand controls.”

Rather than looking at a flat screen ahead of you, in virtual reality you have a small image for each eye and your brain combines the two into three-dimensions. Since the lenses magnify the image, you aren’t looking at a rectangle out in front of you like a TV screen. Instead, it fills your field of view. The screen stays strapped onto your head, so the picture moves with you as you turn. It’s as if you’re actually rotating your head in the virtual world, allowing you to look up into a virtual sky or look back on a virtual motorcycle.

Pallister said, “The first and foremost thing is presenting a stereo 3D view. Right along side that is letting you change that view along with changing the position and orientation of your eyes and your head. So when you tilt your head downwards to look at the floor, the view of the world you are seeing looks down toward the floor in a way you expect. You forget you are wearing an HMD (head-mounted display).”

The first VR headsets will have screens with resolution similar to HD televisions. But since the image is so close to your eyes, even greater detail will be necessary. Right now, the horsepower of computers limits how detailed you can get, since VR has higher technical requirements than normal computing. But within the next few years the screens will jump to 4K or even 8K, letting people see even richer worlds when they look around.

Some headsets take immersion further by using external sensors like a camera to track how your body moves. Now you can duck to see what is on the floor, lean out a car window to watch the scenery. The screens aren’t a static image. They are a view into an artificial reality. The sensor also tracks an area of a room, so you can even walk around a room and the image reacts like you are walking in the virtual world.

The screens aren’t a static image. They are a view into an artificial reality.

The software to make VR images believable is tricky, requiring a distortion of the images so the lenses can put them in the eye properly. It has to present the image smoothly, so the moving graphics aren’t jerky or make you dizzy. While television airs at 30 frames per second (FPS) and some games go as high as 60 FPS, VR uses 90 or even 120 frames per second. Such smoothness makes the world feel more solid.

Unger says, “When the display’s refresh rate and a game’s native frame rate marry to hit over 90 frames per second something magical happens. Some call it ‘presence,’ the sense that what you’re seeing has tangibility even if it’s clearly not real. This is difficult to describe but is immediately apparent.”

Some products will also track your hands with a sensor, putting virtual objects in your grasp and control. In The Gallery, players solve puzzles a la the classic game Myst. You travel around a world, figuring problems out. But now, you are actually walking around a scene, leaning around the puzzles, and using Vive’s motion controls to handle the objects involved. It’s profoundly different from statically clicking a cursor on a computer screen, turning fictions into worlds that surround you.

“Normal use of a computer monitor provides you with visual information. Whether you are playing a game or watching a movie. They say, ‘We will do our best to tell a story, but you have to suspend your disbelief.'” said Pallister. “With VR, they say, ‘What are the things that cause people to realize they are not really in that environment? Let us try to fool those senses, one by one, until they can no longer tell.'”

Like the evolution of cellphones, features like tracking will become more detailed, eventually tracking eye movement, facial expressions, even lip movement. Virtual worlds will be presented to you more realistically and you will be more accurately represented in them. Such fidelity will bring more compelling experiences, and like cellphones, adoption will then become more widespread.

Unger said, “‘Good VR’ is undeniably compelling and consumers from a broad cross section will have a high appetite for it. The applications are so far reaching that it’s clear this medium will dominate in entertainment, education, training, travel, research, and socialization. It’s one of those technologies that will have a profound impact on our lives.”