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How Do Virtual Reality Headsets Work?


Virtual reality (VR) is now the fastest-growing content segment in the world.

Research by PwC found that VR content will grow at a compound annual rate of 30 percent between 2021 and 2025, outstripping over-the-top (OTT) video, video games, and even traditional cinema.

VR headsets can allow users to consume VR content by providing them with an immersive, three-dimensional experience.

What Is a Virtual Reality Headset?

A VR headset is a head-mounted device that includes a display screen, stereo sound, sensors, and compatible controllers to deliver an immersive and interactive audiovisual experience.

When a user puts on a VR headset, they can no longer see the world around them, but instead only see VR content projected on the display screen such as 360-degree videos and VR games, workspaces, or meeting rooms for other activities.

Unlike augmented reality (AR) headsets or mixed reality (MR) headsets, VR headsets do not allow users to see any element of the external physical world.

Along with the headset itself, the user will rely on a set of VR controllers to navigate the experience. As mentioned, the device offers an interactive experience, requiring a controller to point to objects, select, drag, and drop, scroll up or down, navigate between different VR spaces, demarcate boundaries, and other functions.

Most VR headsets that are available in the market use handheld controllers that function similarly to joysticks. More futuristic models may provide haptic gloves, where users can navigate through the virtual world using their fingers, gestures, touch, and other naturalized movements.

All VR headsets consist of the following four components:

Basic Components of VR Headsets

An array of sensors

Unlike 2D video, virtual reality is not a passive experience. Users interact with virtual worlds, which adapts according to the user’s continuous inputs.

To achieve this, VR headsets come with a number of sensors, and some devices even have a six degrees of freedom (6DoF) system for head tracking.

Using gyroscopes, accelerometers, and other sensors, a 6DoF system tracks head movements and repositions the display accordingly. Some headsets also have eye-tracking sensors that can understand when eyes focus on a VR object or location.

Lenses and screens

The lenses and screen setup makes up the bulk of the VR headset’s hardware. There are stereoscopic lenses positioned between the screen and your eyes that distort the image into appearing three-dimensional.

Two images are passed through the lens, one for each eye, similar to how our eyes perceive and process visuals in the real world. Additionally, images in VR headsets appear to move side-to-side to recreate a 360-degree experience and is achieved by subtly moving the display content in response to head tracking data.

Immersive audio

A stereo audio feed comes from two directions or one for each ear, but in the real world, users have a much more layered experience of sound where audio is directly linked to our perception of distance and space.

VR headsets mimic this experience using 360-degree or immersive audio technology. Binaural audio is one such technology, and the new spatial audio pioneered by companies like Apple marks another milestone in VR audio innovation.


Finally, VR headset controllers are your bridge between the real and the virtual worlds. Interestingly, there are a variety of controllers you can use, apart from the usual set of two handheld controllers that come with most headsets.

For instance, Samsung offers a single hand motion controller for its Gear VR kit, and HTC VIVE also has single hand joystick-like controllers that come with a base station to dock them.

Meta reportedly has developed a set of haptic-based controllers in the works that could enable pressure-sensitive touch and navigation. Also, Valve Index has a unique take on controllers that incorporates a fist gripping design.

Understanding How a VR Headset Functions

All of these components, together with sophisticated VR software, allow the headset to function properly. Once the headset boots up, users are greeted by a realistic virtual environment that acts as a lobby and is equivalent to a computer’s homepage. While there, users can choose different apps, hang out with other virtual people, change settings, update devices, and other features from this space.

Meanwhile, images are fed through a video source such as a smartphone, desktop, or more likely the cloud in modern headsets. The lens will split the video image into two and calibrate them into a stereoscopic 3D image, which is what you see on the screen. Thanks to built-in sensors, the environment changes subtly, as you look around, shift the focus of your eye, or raise your hands.

Apart from this basic functionality, VR headsets are extremely powerful. For instance, there are productivity apps that let you create product designs in VR and save your designs as 3D files to the cloud. Sophisticated VR headsets have a very high screen refresh rate to render and update content instantaneously.

What Makes a Good VR Headset?

There are a few key features that characterize a good VR headset, such as:

● Light form factor – The screen and sensors can add to the headset’s bulk, and anything heavier than 500-600 grams will be difficult to use on a regular basis. This is why Apple’s upcoming mixed reality (MR) headset’s current 150-gram weight is such a breakthrough.

● Easy to use controllers – The controllers will inevitably have numerous buttons, wheels, and sticks to help navigate in VR. They must be ergonomically designed and provide a seamless user experience.

● Onboard storage – While most VR headsets rely on the Internet and the cloud, it is good to have at least 32GB of onboard storage to install applications, ensure timely updates, and store a few files without slowing down the system.

After topping 9.36 million shipments in 2021, VR headset shipments are expected to reach 13.59 million worldwide by 2022 as per IDC’s December 2021 report. As demand grows, we can expect new innovations – built on these existing core functionalities – to create VR experiences that are more enriching, seamless, and accessible.

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