Virtual Reality has gone from having a niche following to becoming the next generation of gaming and entertainment, but what does the phrase VR actually entail? Virtual Reality (VR), along with Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) are collectively referred to as XR (Extended Reality), seeing as it’s an extension of our own reality. Let’s quickly establish what they mean:
Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual Reality means any media that is generated and rendered by a computer, and then shown in a VR headset. VR experiences are typically video footage shot with a 180 or 360 degree camera, or a video game either built from scratch for VR or a “flatscreen” game ported to VR.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Augmented Reality is when you use a device, typically a smartphone, with a camera to place computer generated media on top of the real world. Real world examples of this are Pokemon Go (2016) showing Pokemon moving around in the real world, or Google using AR technology to show virtual arrows as you move your phone around to point you to your destination.
Mixed Reality (MR)
As the name suggests, Mixed Reality is literally a mix of both VR and AR. It might be a bit hard to understand exactly how that works at first, but imagine that in VR, all interaction is solely through VR peripherals, and in AR, the main focus is still the real world, with extra “virtual” addons. MR however means that we interact with both the real world and with the virtual world at the same time (Or interact with the virtual world using our hands and fingers!). As of writing this post (mid 2021), there’s sadly not that many MR experiences easily accessible to a mainstream audience, but the future is bright!
Extended Reality (XR)
As mentioned earlier, Extended Reality is just the umbrella term for all the other words we’ve talked about so far.
So now that we’ve established what VR is and what it’s not, let’s talk a bit more about degrees of freedom. A lot of people may have tried a Google Cardboard, or a similar smartphone VR experience, and had some fun with that, and thought that they’ve pretty much tried VR and it’s just a gimmick. It’s important to note that there’s a night and day difference between the highly mediocre smartphone VR and the 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DOF) VR experiences you can have on a real VR headset.
Six Degrees of Freedom (6DOF)
On headsets where you insert your smartphone, there’s no technology inside the headset, but rather the phone’s built in gyroscope and accelerometer being used to track the user with 3 degrees of freedom (The 3 degrees are the XYZ axes of rotation). On a headset built for VR games and entertainment, there are also external or internal sensors that can track the user’s movement by mapping out the area the headset is being used in.
This adds an additional 3 degrees of freedom (XYZ axes of movement) and means that you can physically walk around in VR and have your hands tracked in the virtual space using VR controllers.
When it comes to publicly available consumer VR controllers, there’s mostly 2 different variants to choose from. Oculus, HTC, and Windows Mixed Reality controllers are mostly the same controller with basically the same amount of buttons, just placed differently on the controllers. These controllers are known as standard VR controllers (with 6DOF).
The other type of controllers is the Valve Index Controllers. These are rather strapped to your hands and you don’t need to hold them. Instead, they have loads of sensors that track all your fingers in real time and this allows you to move all your fingers individually in games that support it. What this means is that you can (in supported games) literally grab things and move objects around just like in real life. Currently, Valve Index Controllers are made for the Valve Index headset, and even though they can be purchased separately and paired with other headsets, they do require an external base station setup regardless of whether or not your headset has internal sensors for tracking.