How Does Virtual Reality Work?

Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images.
Welcome to What The Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand).

Virtual reality isn't some far-fetched science fiction concept anymore. It's a real thing thanks to (what else?) our smartphones. But VR may not work quite how you expect.

The idea of virtual reality is that you trick your senses into thinking you're in a world other than the one you're physically in. VR accomplishes this with a headset, which tackles the visual aspect, and a pair of headphones for audio. The headset may have its own display (like the Oculus Rift) or it may use your smartphone as its brains and screen (like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard). Google Cardboard-style headsets are the cheapest and most common way to view VR right now.

Normally, when you're watching video on your phone, it doesn't matter where you put it — the video stays the same. With VR, the position of your phone determines what you see on screen. Using sensors, such as a gyroscope (which measures rotational movements), a VR device allows you to "look" around the virtual landscape surrounding you, in 360 degrees, as you turn your head.

But what you see in VR is only half of the experience. Depending on what you're looking at, it can be cool on its own; but usually, you need surround-sound audio cues to make the experience feel real. With a pair of headphones on, you can get immersive audio that instructs you where to look in your virtual world — just like sounds do in real life. Using headphones paired with Dolby Atmos for VR, for example, a loud thunk "behind" may tell you to turn around; or if a person speaking is speaking to your left, you'll turn to look towards them.
More and more app developers, filmmakers, and game designers are creating content for VR. The reasons you'd view virtual reality are as varied as why you'd view video. It might be for entertainment — for a game, movie, or concert experience. It could be to experience a news story. You could use it to teach a skill or to simulate an on-the-job experience. We've even used it ourselves to create a guided fashion tour.

Those are the basics behind virtual reality. If you have any other questions, head to the comments and we'll hop in to answer.

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