The VR experiences we see are the result of sophisticated software simulations – programs that developers have toiled over for hundreds of hours. None of that would matter, however, if that software had no hardware to run on. VR hardware refers to all the gizmos, doodads, and other physical systems that you need in order to experience VR. In this section I look at virtually the entire span of VR hardware products.
The most prominent piece of VR hardware has to be the head-mounted display, or HMD. Whenever someone mentions “virtual reality” the first thought is probably of someone wearing a dorky visor with wires coming out of it. The days of those bulky, oversized plastic helmets is long gone, however. Modern VR HMDs are masterpieces of modern technology. It’s thanks mainly to high-performance smartphone screens and motion sensors that we can now have such lightweight head-mounted systems.
While HMDs themselves are not the focus of this part of my site, you will find discussions of some of the technologies that go into them and how they make the magic possible.
Sound Like a Plan
I also look at the oft-ignored area of VR audio. It’s not just the pretty pictures that make VR work, it’s the realistic positional audio and processing magic that goes on behind it that can really sell that feeling of presence. Hearing ambient noises stay fixed in “space” relative to your ears is something that has to be experienced. It’s often the last piece of the puzzle that can make VR “click”.
I Like to Move it Move it
One of the main reasons VR is so special is because you are physically embodied in the VR world. You aren’t just watching pretty pictures on a screen. When you turn your real-life head, you also turn your virtual head. When you move your real hands (assuming you use the right controller), your virtual hands will likewise move.
The hardware technology that makes all of this possible is some of the most impressive and fascinating I’ve ever seen; it’s electromechanical wizardry at a microscopic scale. This tech can be found in almost all our phones, video game controls, and many other devices that need to measure movement.
In this section I’m looking at optical motion tracking, direct body tracking, and tracking by way of sensors. The ways we can turn a real body into a virtual one are really multiplying as the days go by.
Even though we all love AAA VR experiences, it’s hard to admit that it’s a small part of the modern VR market. Mobile VR is where the real action is. The experience may not be as compelling as we would like it to be, but mobile VR is much more affordable and accessible.
In this section I’ve also looked at some of the mobile accessories that go with a mobile VR setup – mainly the controllers that are available for mobile VR solution.
Walk This Way
One of the biggest constraints in VR is moving around the virtual environment. That’s why most VR experiences involve either sitting down or using a traditional joystick control to help you move your virtual body around. It can work just fine, but it’s hardly what anyone would call “immersive”.
So companies have started coming up with other ways to get your legs involved, without the embarrassment and potential injury that comes with tripping over your cat. From omnidirectional treadmills to weird things that go on your shoes, there’s some sort of solution for movement.
Facing the Future
The future of VR hardware looks like it might be quite radical. Will we get some sort of Matrix-like implant that will intercept nerve responses? Maybe the holodeck from Star Trek is closer to what future VR will look like. I love nothing more than speculating about the future, and you’ll find quite a few discussions on the more radical visions for VR hardware here.