Everyone’s abuzz about VR glasses (also called VR headsets) these days, but are you ready to buy one? If so, which one’s right for you? This article gives you a quick overview. VR is short for virtual reality, and if you love games and other immersive entertainment experiences, then you definitely should give these gadgets a look.

Yet, it’s easy to get lost in all the acronyms. VR is short for “virtual reality.” The term refers to a computer-generated environment that’s designed to look like a full, three-dimensional scene that you can interact with in a way that feels immediate and like the real world. Technology has enabled artists and developers to make these simulations look and feel more and more convincing.

But what the heck are AR, 3D and 4D+ ? It’s okay if you don’t know. When you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a handle on all the basics. We’ll take you through the fascinating history of VR headsets (also called VR glasses), then we’ll tell you what all those acronyms mean and give you an overview of the most popular VR headsets.

VR Glasses: A Brief History

When the first consumer VR glasses burst onto the scene in 2016, virtual reality had been in the public imagination for so long, it felt less like a never-before-seen invention, and more like the crystallization of an idea that had been a long time coming. How long? Would you believe nearly two hundred years?

In 1838, British scientist Charles Wheatstone demonstrated that humans’ 3D vision is the result of the brain processing two-dimensional images seen by each eye into a single object in three dimensions (stereoscopic vision). He invented the stereoscope, which gave the viewer a sense of depth and immersion. This led to the invention of the View Master (1939), which remained a popular toy for decades.

Photo of a View Master, a popular toy and a precursor of VR glasses.

This beloved View-Master was a precursor to today’s VR glasses. Photo: CC BY 2.0 Enokson via Flickr.

A short science fiction story published in 1930, Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum, envisioned a headset that would allow users to experience a virtual world with all five senses. We’re not there yet, but there have been some impressive attempts along the way, including the Sensorama, a one-person film viewing chamber that featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair (the mid-1950s), followed closely by the Telesphere Mask—an early stereoscopic film viewing headset (1960). Computer generated “artificial reality” arrived in 1969—for the first time providing an environment that responded to the user. Flight simulators—and amusement-park simulators that rely on 3D visuals and rooms that dip and rise—followed not long after that, and remain popular to this day.

The term “Virtual Reality” was coined in 1987, and the decades since then have seen the idea take root in the public imagination—from movies like Tron and The Matrix to TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and the short-lived VR5. The 1990s saw the first nascent attempts at consumer VR devices, however, the technology wouldn’t really take hold commercially until the release of the Oculus Rift in 2016. Now, of course, consumers have a dizzying choice of “artificial reality” devices, with a raft of new terms and acronyms to go with them. Let’s have a look.

VR Glasses: Some Basic Definitions.

  • Virtual Reality (VR):  Virtual Reality completely immerses the user in an interactive, computer-generated, three-dimensional environment. The Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation is an example of a VR environment, as is the Matrix in the eponymous film series.
  • Augmented Reality (AR): Augmented Reality devices superimpose computer-generated images onto the real world as seen by the user. Examples of technologies that use AR include Pokemon Go and Google Glass.
  • 3D:  3D Technology allows users to see images in three dimensions.
  • 4D+:  Technology that allows users to interact with 3D projections.
  • VR Mobile Headset: This is a headset that combines the user’s smartphone with headphones and stereoscopic lenses to create an immersive virtual reality experience.
  • All-in-one VR Headset A complete headset unit that does not require a smartphone, and comes with its own programming and content.

Popular VR Glasses.

The first commercially successful consumer VR headset, an all-in-one unit called Oculus Rift, hit the market with a price tag of $599. Since then, there have been a flurry of different VR and AR devices released, offering a wide array of features at vastly different price points, from Google’s cardboard stereoscopic viewer to the more substantial VR Box and Tzumi Dream Vision headsets (under $30) and the somewhat pricier Utopia 360, which combines VR, AR and interactive 4D+ technologies. But what’s the difference between a $30 headset, and a device that costs twenty times that? How do these things work? And what do you get for your money?

VR Mobile Viewing Headsets (aka VR Glasses): The great news is, to get started with VR, you don’t need to buy a pricey system that generates its own images and sound. There’s already a variety of free and low-cost 3D VR movies, programming, games, and apps available for your smartphone, and you can enjoy them with the assistance of inexpensive mobile headgear, whether you’re looking for an iPhone VR headset, or something to fit your Android or other smartphones. Let’s have a look at some of them.

VR Box: This VR Box review gives a good rundown of its features. Once you have downloaded 3D VR content onto your phone, the VR Box headset uses headphones and a stereoscopic insert to create a 3D VR experience. It’s a wallet-friendly and user-friendly way to dip your toe into a new technology. YouTube is a great place to find 3D VR movies, and a quick internet search will turn up hundreds of exciting games and apps you can download onto your phone

Tzumi Dream Vision: The Tzumi Dream Vision is another VR headset for iPhone and other smartphones. In addition to a comfortable, adjustable headset, there is a whole host of entertainment and educational content produced specifically for Dream Vision. These 3D VR glasses also feature independent pupil and focus adjustment.

Utopia 360: Utopia 360  is a padded, fully adjustable mobile headset that advertises seamless 360-degree vision from any angle. The exciting thing about the Utopia 360, is that it offers bundles that combine virtual and augmented reality with 4D+, which makes for some dynamite interactive programming. Retrak, the company that produces the Utopia 360, is directing a lot of its effort toward STEM-educational products, including interactive flash cards, virtual tours of the space station and solar system, and immersive walks through the age of dinosaurs. Parents and educators, this is one to watch. This model retails for a modest $39.

Oculus Rift: The Oculus Rift is an all-in-one VR headset that comes with apps, games, and content already installed—no downloads or smartphones are needed. Features include a 960×1080 resolution for each eye, a 100-degree field of view, integration with XBox, a positional tracker, a Constellation Tracking System, and full 360-degree perspective. The Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch bundle has come down in price from $798 to a far more reasonable $399.

Consumer VR technology is the culmination of almost two hundred years of research and speculation. Gaming is the application that comes to most people’s minds, and there’s a lot of development happening in that direction. But VR and AR show a lot of promise in the field of education, as Retrak is showing us. And as the profusion of 3D VR movies and program content shows, the potential in the field of entertainment is limitless. One thing is certain: the future is here, and it’s virtual.

Featured image: Composite with CC0 Creative Commons HammerandTusk via Pixabay and CC BY-SA 2.0 Ishtaure Dawn via Flickr.

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