[Video Games 101] What is Virtual Reality and Why Is It Such a Big Deal?

Posted by | August 12, 2015 | Tips for Parents | One Comment
virtual reality

This post is part of a series that addresses the needs of the parent who “just doesn’t get video games.” We’re here to catch you up, Clueless Parent!

Chances are you’ve heard of virtual reality. Most people have a degree of familiarity with virtual reality as an idea. Essentially, it’s a simulation of another world that you interact with.

It’s not a difficult concept to grasp; it’s just incredibly complicated to pull off. Fictional books and movies have been toying with the concept of virtual reality for decades. But not until just recently has virtual reality actually become possible.

What’s That Got to Do With Video Games?

For video games, VR represents a big step forward in terms of immersion. With the Nintendo Wii, you had the Wiimote. You could swing that special controller around like you were interacting with the game world. But there was still a big barrier between yourself and the game itself. You never actually felt like you were inside of a game.

Virtual reality technology is seeking to change that. With the latest iterations of VR, there are headsets you wear that put you directly into the game you’re playing. Motion tracking lets you move your head or body around as your character in the game mimics your actions. Wearable gloves, treadmills, and other devices immerse you into the experience, further blurring the line between what’s real and what’s not.

That’s a pretty cool prospect when you think about it.

What Are the Main Types of Technology?

Currently, VR technology is broken up into a few different subcategories. Let’s break them down and mention some of the major names in each field.

Headsets

The biggest name in this category is the Oculus Rift headset. It was a huge success on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter. And it’s seeing a wide release in 2016. The Oculus Rift, and other headsets like it, allow players to become visually immersed in their environment. They also support motion tracking, which lets you look around inside of games. In addition, speakers are situated around your ears to complete the effect. But like most great pieces of technology, VR headsets become most impressive when combined with other things.

virtual reality Oculus rift

Playing with the Oculus Rift.

Handheld Input Devices

The most common example of a handheld input device is the aforementioned Wiimote. Now that technology has been applied across a large variety of devices. It’s getting even closer to seamless with immediate motion tracking. In fact, some companies are experimenting with full body suits, vests, and gloves. With wearable input devices, you’re able to move your body instead of having to swing a plastic controller around. The technology tracks all of the movement (hands, fingers, etc.) individually.

Movement

So that covers twisting your head around to look at stuff and moving your arms around to interact with stuff, but what if you wanted to go further than that? With devices such as the Virtuix Omni, it’s possible to actually run on a treadmill device that maps your real body movement to the in-game movement of your character. Combine that with a VR headset and a motion-based input device like the Wiimote, and you’ve got an entirely responsive and interactive VR environment.

virtual reality virtruix omni

Running on a treadmill with Virtuix Omni

 

What Types of Games Support VR?

The devices are all fine and dandy, but none of that really means much if there aren’t games to support it. Luckily, VR technology would work well with a huge variety of game types. Shooting games are the obvious choice, since the devices work best with first-person based games. But that’s not all. Anything that involves driving or piloting something would be great as well. Looking around the cockpit of a spaceship by moving your head is a surreal experience. Educational games could recreate historic events, enabling students to learn in an entirely different way. Adventure games that direct you through immersive worlds—and really, anything else you can imagine—may one day have applications for VR technology.

We may be at the dawn of the next big advancement in interactive entertainment. Whether it’s a fad like 3D televisions or the next big thing like Bluray discs remains to be seen, but it’s coming fast. Soon your family will have a lot of options to expand the way you play.

david jagneaux

About David Jagneaux

David lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and loves everything about gaming. He has been writing about games since 2011 and has been writing and editing professionally since 2008. He has degrees in both Technical Communication and Political Science from the University of North Texas. You can find his work across the interwebs at various different publications and you can follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.