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Virtual Reality: Understanding the Basics

By Kelly Smith

Just a few years ago, virtual reality (VR) was a thing of the distant future. Today, the technology has found its way into marketing materials, training programs, and new business pitches for organizations across industries.

Before pursuing a VR initiative or aligning these tactics with business and branding goals, the first step is to understand the basics, from nuances in terminology to equipment needs.

 

Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality

The terms “virtual reality” and “augmented reality” tend to be talked about in the same spaces and even seem to be interchangeable. Knowing the difference is important.

Virtual reality is an immersive experience. When you are experiencing virtual reality, your entire surroundings have been replaced. You can look up, down, and around 360 degrees and what you see will be different than where you’re actually standing.

Augmented reality mixes graphics with the real world. Viewers see their own surroundings along with additional graphic information seen through a screen or a device.

For the rest of this post, we will be strictly talking about virtual reality.

Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality

While virtual reality (left) is an immersive experience, augmented reality (right) mixes graphics with the real world.

360 vs. Non-Immersive vs. Fully Immersive

While all VR experiences are technically “immersive” because you are completely cut off from the real world, there are three variants on what that means.

A 360 experience is just what it sounds like: a video that is viewable at 360 degrees. From one vantage point, you can look around — up, down, completely around yourself — and watch the video from all angles. But you’re at the mercy of the creator of the experience. You cannot move through it, move objects, or make decisions. While you can enjoy the ride, you cannot change how the director shot the experience or edited it together.

Non-immersive experiences allow you to interact but in very limited ways. A tour of a space is one common example of a non-immersive experience. Viewers use the direction of their gaze to make simple decisions about where to go next. However, the user does not have free range and they can only view the space from one vantage point at a time. The appeal of non-immerive experiences — and the reason they are so limiting — is that they can be experienced using inexpensive and accessible equipment.

Fully immersive experiences allow for multiple kinds of interactions and typically give the user complete free range of the space. Sometimes it’s as simple as feeling a vibration when you touch an element, but sometimes the interactions rule the experience. Fully immersive experiences are used for gaming, creating art, exploring, and so much more. Fully immersive experiences require high-powered equipment and controllers and therefore are not as accessible as 360 or non-immersive.

 

Real-World vs. CGI

The difference between real-world videos and computer-generated images (CGI) in VR is the same as it is in the film industry. Real-world is the real world, shot with a camera. CGI are graphics created by a computer. Sometimes these overlap, but it’s not as common.

Fully immersive VR is almost always CGI. While there are a few real-world fully immersive VR experiences, the options for interacting with the environment are limited. You may be able to choose which direction you go or make a simple decision, but typically, you cannot interact with objects or have free range in real-world VR. CGI is limited only by the creator’s imagination.

 

Mobile Devices vs. High-Powered Devices

There is a wide variety of equipment out there for VR experiences. For our purposes, we’ll stick to the two most popular and accessible devices on both sides of the spectrum: Google Cardboard representing our basic, mobile device, and the VIVE as one of the most high-powered devices.

Google Cardboard and other mobile equipment require only a smartphone and a VR video or WebVR experience, many of which you can find online for free. These simple devices are limited to non-immersive experiences only because they lack the hardware and controllers that fully immersive experiences require.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard, a more affordable option, requires only a smartphone and a VR video.

On the more expensive end, the VIVE costs about $600 for the equipment itself, and also requires a high-powered PC. Not just any computer will do. These experiences require high-resolution rendering at an enormous scale and a computer not up to the task will create lagging and a poor experience. You’ll also need to buy each experience independently. While the free YouTube VR videos will still work on a more expensive system, you’ll have to pay for fully immersive experiences.

In VR, equipment is everything. When you’re wearing a mobile device, you’re very aware that you’re looking through goggles. You can see everything and look around, but you can’t interact, the view is cloudy, and the experience lacks peripheral vision and realistic sound.

Strap on a VIVE or Oculus and you’re in another world (almost) literally. This equipment and the experiences it provides are so real that it tricks your brain on primitive levels. Your entire vision, including peripheral, is taken over. Peripheral vision is a space media has never successfully mastered until this type of VR.

This equipment also masters sound, which is what takes an experience from cool to convincingly realistic. With surround sound headphones, a noise behind you sounds like a noise behind you and a distant noise sounds a like a distant noise. This equipment also comes with complex controllers that allow you to move around, pick things up, throw, draw, or anything else your imagination can come up with.

Whether you like it or not, virtual reality is a part of our world. And unlike movies or video games, this technology is becoming a huge part of business. It can be simple to understand, but the best way to learn it is to experience it. At the very least, buy a Google Cardboard and discover what’s available on YouTube. In the meantime, start using the knowledge you now know to impress your co-workers.