• <nav id="a2y0s"></nav>
  • Immersion in Virtual Reality: What is It? - VR 101: Part I

    New to VR? If you’ve ever seen someone wearing a VR headset and wondered what it was like, you owe it to yourself to find out!

    Virtual reality is a uniquely immersive experience — and one of the great innovations of our time. It’s also easier to get into than you may think.

    In this blog post series, we’ll take you through the basics of VR, including what it is, why a VR headset’s specs matter, and how you can best enjoy this technology.

    Familiarizing yourself with the concepts we’re about to cover will help you understand virtual reality and the ways VR headsets differ from smartphones, PCs, tablets, and other devices.

    Ready to dive in? Let’s start off by examining two closely related ideas — VR and immersion — in this first blog post. You’ll get a sense of what VR headsets are supposed to do without being bogged down in specific hardware features.

    What is virtual reality?

    Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive experience achieved via a computer-generated simulation. That experience includes audio, visual, and sometimes tactile elements that together make you feel like you’re physically present in an artificial 3D environment. (Such an environment could be part of the metaverse , but that’s a topic for another day.)

    The virtual simulation runs on a device — e.g., a VR headset — or combination of devices that can accurately detect the position and orientation of your head (and possibly other parts of your body). This data is used to deliver corresponding graphics, sounds, and haptics to your eyes, ears, and hands, respectively.

    In other words, what you see, hear, and, in some cases, feel in VR is directly related to your real-time movements.

    VR avatars inside a virtual world in VIVERSE, the open, secure metaverse from HTC VIVE accessible on VR headsets, mobile phones, and PCs.
    Virtual reality includes a wide range of online and offline experiences.

    How these visual, audio, and tactile stimuli are delivered also affects how realistic your experience feels. Looking at a 3D world on the flat screen of a phone in your hand, for example, is quite different from viewing it on a pair of curved screens placed close to your eyes.

    The latter method better produces the illusion of depth, which is part of how VR headsets create immersion.

    What is immersion?

    Immersion in VR refers to the sensation of having physical presence in a simulated space. It is the feeling that you’re occupying a virtual environment instead of the real world.

    Most kinds of media have very little immersion. When you watch a film on your computer or TV screen, you’re still aware (to some extent) of the room you’re in. Unless you’ve got a truly vivid imagination and remarkable concentration skills, you probably don’t feel like you’re inside the movie.

    Person watching a movie on a couch at home.
    Real-world distractions can often get in the way of a good movie.

    At a movie theatre, meanwhile, you may have a more immersive experience watching the exact same film. A bigger screen in a darker, hopefully quieter environment is meant to help you appreciate and become absorbed in the movie.

    Virtual reality takes immersion a step further, bringing you right into the action. Whether it’s movies or games, virtual worlds or meetings, VR surrounds you with highly engaging sights and sounds that can redefine what you perceive as real.

    How do VR headsets create immersion?

    Tricking your brain into believing that you’re actually in a virtual world basically requires two things: believable stimuli from the VR headset you’re wearing and the absence of disruptive stimuli from your physical surroundings.

    By “believable stimuli,” we just mean that what you see, hear, and feel are at least somewhat realistic.

    Let’s say, for instance, that you’re exploring a rainforest in VR. You should be able to see lush green plants up close and maybe observe insects crawling on the ground. You probably hear birds chirping above or monkeys howling in the distance.

    If the trees around you look blurry or pixelated, however, or those birds sound like a low-quality recording, you’re very quickly reminded that you’re not really in the rainforest — the immersion is lost. Believable graphics and sound must thus be crisp and clear.

    “Disruptive stimuli,” as you’ve probably guessed, refers to anything around you that takes away from the immersive experience.

    In the same example as above, if the virtual rainforest is nice and shady but light from your desk lamp enters your view, or if the sounds of wildlife are drowned out by your cat meowing for attention, your immersion is reduced because you’re made aware of your physical environment. A VR headset should block out stimuli from the real world to a reasonable extent.

    Cat yearning for its owner's attention. Your real-world pet may have something to say about your using VR.

    Of course, these are just simple examples. There’s a lot more that goes into creating an immersive VR experience. Below we’ll take a closer look at the way VR provides immersion with different kinds of stimuli:

    Visuals: a feast for your eyes.
    We’ve already mentioned that high-quality graphics are important in VR as they help convince your brain that what you’re looking at is real.

    Since reality is three-dimensional, VR also needs to provide those visuals in 3D. That means your left and right eyes must receive slightly different images, which your brain can then combine into one. VR headsets thus need not only one display, but two.

    VR uses two high-resolution displays to create the illusion of depth.

    The images on each display can’t be static, either — they must adjust according to your head’s every movement.

    To see why, suppose that you are at a beach in VR staring out at the water. If you were to turn your head upwards, it would be jarring to still be looking at the ocean. A VR headset would shift the view according to your head’s changing position and orientation, gradually showing you the sky and clouds above.

    There’s also the matter of how much of the environment you can see at once. If your eyes can see past the edge of each screen on the VR headset, that beautiful beach might appear to be surrounded by patches of black, as if you were viewing it through binoculars. Not very immersive, right?
    VR has to offer you a reasonably big, unobstructed view of the virtual world.

    Audio: as much about physics as about atmosphere.
    Like graphics, sound in VR must be of high quality. Scratchy, muffled, or otherwise distorted audio is not only unpleasant to listen to; it also reduces immersion.

    But it takes more than quality to provide immersive audio. Sound in VR should behave similarly to the way it does in the real world — that is, it must have depth.

    Visualization of immersive three-dimensional sound being pumped out of the speakers on a VR headset.
    Music and sound effects can make the virtual experience more immersive.

    Three-dimensional audio, also known as 3D sound or spatial audio, is the simulation of the natural movement and positioning of sounds. This means that what you hear in virtual reality sounds like it’s coming from the same direction as it appears to be visually.

    For example, a plane flying overhead in the VR environment will sound like it’s actually above you. The voice coming from a person’s avatar will get louder as they approach you and quieter as they walk away. And something behind you will clue you in to its presence before you ever look back to see it.

    Turning your head in VR may even change what you hear as it would in real life. Like the name suggests, then, 3D audio is simply sound that seems to reach your ears from three dimensions.

    Delivering immersive spatial audio is no simple task. It takes specially designed earphones, headphones, or speakers to simulate these kinds of sounds.

    Haptics and beyond: new ways to get immersed.
    VR is a primarily audio-visual experience, but theoretically it could provide immersion via all five senses.

    Haptics, which is the stimulation of the sense of touch, is one area in which VR is quickly evolving. Carefully timed tactile feedback from a handheld VR controller or haptic VR glove can make you feel like you’ve made physical contact with a virtual object.

    That could heighten the immersion of, say, picking a weapon up off the ground or giving your friend’s avatar a high five. But you probably wouldn’t want to feel the prick of a needle or the burn of a flame, so tactile sensations in VR are necessarily limited.

    VIVE Controllers for XR Series, the left and right VR controllers used with VIVE XR Elite.png
    Well-designed VR controllers make navigating virtual reality more intuitive.

    Olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) stimuli, meanwhile, are much harder to deliver — and rarely a focus of VR. They’re certainly interesting areas of research, though. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to enjoy food in VR!

    For now, immersion in VR will likely continue to depend heavily on graphics and sound.

    Prepare to be immersed.

    With this introduction, we’ve stated that virtual reality is an immersive experience and given you an idea of what that experience is like. We haven’t said much about VR headsets or the VR apps and games that together produce the feeling of immersion.

    You might be wondering how virtual reality varies across different devices or the kind of immersive experience a given VR headset can provide. These answers call for a basic understanding of a VR headset’s specs and features as well as the software available on it.

    In the next few posts, we’ll dive into the hardware side of things and show you how a VR headset’s specifications relate to the immersive experience it offers. Stay tuned as we get you up to speed with the marvel that is virtual reality!