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virtual reality gaming (VR gaming)

What is virtual reality gaming (VR gaming)?

Virtual reality gaming is the application of a three-dimensional (3D) artificial environment to computer games. Virtual reality environments are created with VR software and presented to the user in such a way that they supersede the real-world environment, creating suspension of disbelief and helping the user experience the VR environment as real.

Users can play VR games on smartphones, PCs and laptops, and gaming consoles. VR gaming control may involve a standard keyboard and mouse, game controllers and motion capture methods. More complex VR rooms may include treadmill floors or similar methods to further the user's sense of freedom of movement and feelings of immersion within the virtual environment. In other VR gaming setups, the user may be confined to a limited area surrounding a computer but have free range of motion within the area.

As advancements were made in the technology, VR hardware for gaming has matured to the point that VR headsets offer gaming experiences with little lag or nausea, two areas that had presented problems historically. Some experts believe that people can build a tolerance to VR induced nausea as well.

Some VR headsets on the market are the following:

  • HP Reverb
  • Meta Quest
  • Microsoft HoloLens
  • Samsung Gear VR
  • Sony PlayStation VR
  • Valve Index

Most of these companies offer motion controllers and a tracker to work in concert with the headset. In addition to entertainment, VR games can be used for various types of training and for virtual reality therapy.

VR gaming is distinct from augmented reality gaming (AR gaming), which involves the integration of digital content with the user's real-world environment.

How does VR gaming work?

VR gaming systems are composed of a game and hardware. The games are designed to create an immersive experience that gives users the feeling that they are interacting with a world outside their physical bodies. These systems are designed to have as little latency as possible to give fast and accurate feedback to users based on their actions.

VR gaming systems generate realistic sensations that simulate users' physical presence in a computer-generated environment. The goal of VR gaming systems is to let users believe they inhabit a virtual world. People using VR gaming systems move around the virtual world and interact with virtual features and items.

At its simplest, a VR game is a 3D image that can be explored interactively on a computing device by manipulating keys, mouse or touchscreen. More commonly, virtual reality uses a head-mounted display with a screen that wraps around the eyes. These systems also use specially designed rooms with multiple projectors and large screens.

VR rooms may be enhanced with wearable technology and sensory components, such as scents and Haptic devices for tactile feedback.

Photo of ST Engineering Antycip's HIKER lab at the University of Leeds
ST Engineering Antycip's Highly Immersive Kinematic Experimental Research (HIKER) lab at the University of Leeds in Leeds, England, lets users interact with urban environments. It uses a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment cube-shaped virtual reality room.

Types of VR gaming accessories and hardware

The headsets and controllers that make up VR gaming systems are often sold together.

Photo of people using VR gaming headsets
Today's VR headset technology has eliminated issues with lag and nausea.

Headsets

Virtual reality headsets are used to immerse the user in a game or work setting. Some headsets can capture head and eye movements and transmit them to the game. Others include stereo sound systems to project the game's audio content. Some come just as goggles that display the virtual game world to the user. VR headsets do not let users see any of the real external world around them. Some headsets also come with built-in microphones.

Controllers

These hand-based controllers let users interact with the virtual world. Users can select objects, drag and drop objects, point, outline boundaries and scroll up or down with a VR controller. Some controllers have motion detectors that can sense a user's hand motion, like throwing, for example. The controller recreates these actions in the game.

VR gloves take VR controllers a step further by detecting micromovements in the user's hands and fingers and transmitting those to the game. This adds small motor skills to VR video games and enables users to grasp, pick up and carry small items in a game. Some gloves contain haptic technology that let users feel the virtual world of the game. The gloves create vibrations on the fingertips to simulate the presence of an object. Some also contain tiny actuators that displace the user's skin and apply significant resistive force.

Some other auxiliary VR gaming accessories are the following:

  • steering wheels and accelerator controllers for racing games;
  • treadmills that sense running distance and speed;
  • full-body haptic suits;
  • gun stocks that simulate a real gun in a virtual environment;
  • table tennis paddle grips;
  • haptic foot controllers and shoes;
  • base stations that locate and track wireless VR objects and incorporate them into a game;
  • cloth covers for increased headset comfort; and
  • portable battery packs to power more complex VR technology.

What to consider when buying VR gaming equipment

There are a number of factors to consider when buying VR gaming equipment:

  • Budget. VR equipment ranges in price with many options costing hundreds of dollars.
  • Platform. The options available are standalone systems that don't require an external system or PC-, smartphone- or console-based VR systems. Current smartphone VR sets are less immersive than PC or console ones.
  • Compatibility. If using a PC-based VR system, users must make sure the computer meets gaming system's qualifications in areas such as graphics cards and processing power.
  • Resolution. It's important to have a high-resolution headset to have a realistic VR experience. Resolution per eye is the metric used to measure headset resolution. It denotes the number of pixels the headset can display.
  • Field of view. This metric describes how much of the virtual environment is visible to the viewer at any one time. A higher field of view creates a more immersive experience.
  • Refresh rate. This is measured in frames per second (FPS) and dictates the smoothness of an image. A low FPS rate can cause motion sickness.
  • Tracking. Positional tracking aligns a user's physical movement with in-game movement. Virtual reality systems that provide one-to-one positional tracking avoid in-game delays.
  • Physical space. VR gaming usually requires the user to move around in physical space to act out actions in the virtual world. Users must ensure they have a suitable space to play virtual games so as not to injure themselves.
  • Physical conditions. Although technology is improving, VR systems have the potential to induce nausea. Some also warn people with epilepsy against using them.

History of VR gaming

VR gaming was a logical extension of video games and 3D games. Prior to the development of compact VR technology, VR gaming used projector rooms with multiple screens and projectors.

Significant VR gaming milestones include the following:

  • 1962. Cinematographer Morton Heilig created what is often recognized as the first virtual reality machine. Sensorama was a booth that multiple people could sit in for a fully immersed movie experience. It included audio, 3D video, vibrations and smell. Heilig was granted the patent for it in 1962.
  • 1965. Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland described his vision of the Ultimate Display in a paper. It was a room in which a computer controlled the existence of matter, using interactive graphics and force-feedback controller capabilities.
  • 1968. Sutherland created a head-mounted device, called the Sword of Damocles, that presented 3D models to the wearer. The models changed their perspective when the user moved their head.
  • 1984. Computer scientist Jaron Lanier popularized the term virtual reality in the 1980s and described how VR could make television and video games more engaging. Lanier founded VPL in 1984, which became the first company to sell virtual reality technology. VPL's DataGlove let people move and reorient virtual objects.
  • 1989. The DataGlove inspired engineers at Mattel and Nintendo to create a consumer-grade version at a much lower price. Power Glove for the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1989, along with two games designed for the VR device: Super Glove Ball and Bad Street Brawler.
  • 1995. Nintendo released the Virtual Boy gaming console, which used a VR headset to display stereoscopic 3D graphics. However, the technology was considered a commercial failure because of the complexity and cost of creating consumer-grade VR gaming industry products.
  • 2010. Palmer Luckey developed the prototype of the Oculus Rift headset, which was released as a commercial product in 2016. Oculus Rift was marketed to gamers as an inexpensive option for VR video games and led to the development of PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive later that year.
  • 2019. Oculus Quest, a division of Facebook -- now called Meta -- developed the Oculus Quest headset. Facebook also invested in Reality Labs and its work developing the metaverse.
  • 2021. The concept of the metaverse became popular as Meta developed ways for users to socialize and play games in its metaverse. Interest in the metaverse started driving investment in VR technology for corporate use.
Graphic showing how augmented reality and virtual reality differ
The key way that augmented reality and virtual reality differ

Virtual reality vs. augmented reality vs. mixed reality

Virtual reality and augmented reality have some significant overlap, but there are key differences between the two concepts. Like virtual reality, augmented reality can be used in gaming and a variety of other contexts.

Virtual reality creates a completely simulated environment that a user perceives as approximating reality through their senses. The user suspends belief and accepts that the VR is real. The entire environment is simulated.

By contrast, AR integrates virtual elements into a real environment. The user is not transported to another place. Instead, digital technology augments or changes the place they are in.

A simple example of augmented reality would be a game of virtual checkers projected on a table surface. One real-world example of augmented reality gaming is the mobile application Pokemon Go. The game uses a smartphone's gyroscope, camera, clock and GPS to create a location-based AR environment. Users point their smartphone camera at the current environment, where a virtual Pokemon is superimposed on the picture of the real environment.

Chart comparing augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality
Three different simulation types are used in gaming and business.

Mixed reality is similar to augmented reality but further blends the digital and physical worlds so that there is more digital content than with augmented reality. Mixed reality is sometimes referred to as hybrid reality.

Virtual reality enables the metaverse, which shows promise for businesses, gamers and casual users alike. Take a look at 12 metaverse predictions.

This was last updated in January 2023

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