Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it's finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that's happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market--Valve and HTC's Vive headset--and a few months after that we'll see the Rift finally do the same.
With that in mind, we thought it was high-time to get back to basics. What is virtual reality? What can you realistically do with it? And for that matter, what's the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality? What kind of PC will you need to partake? Do you even need a PC at all?
And the most important question: How much is this going to cost?
You'll find answers to all that and more in this, our beginner's crash course in virtual reality.
Seriously, what is virtual reality?
There are a couple ways we can tackle this question. If we go the pie-in-the-sky route, virtual reality's akin to Star Trek's Holodeck or the Matrix--a.k.a. a completely virtual environment that you can nevertheless walk around in and interact with.
In the modern era? Well, we're not quite to the point of transforming energy into matter at will. Current virtual reality (VR) technology is more like strapping a screen to your face. The image is then rendered in stereoscopic 3D and viewed through fancy lenses, tricking you into believing you're looking at a real environment and not a screen mere inches from your eyes.
The effect is aided by a number of sensors in and/or around the device--gyroscopes, infrared dots, et cetera. These are tracked, allowing what you're looking at to react when you turn your head, nod, or even lean forward.
Combine photorealistic graphics (or 3D video) with this ability to move around in the virtual space and you're already pretty damn close to achieving what VR experts term "Presence"--a feeling that you're actually in the virtual world instead of standing awkwardly in the living room with a headset on. How powerful can the effect be? During an Oculus demo last year an alien waved its hand at me and I instinctively waved my hand back, even though that made absolutely no sense and the "alien" couldn't see it, nor care.
Alternate Reality versus Virtual Reality
Okay, so now we know a bit about virtual reality. What, then, is "alternate reality"? Is that like a parallel universe?
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