An official definition of virtual reality according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment”. Which is informative, but the interesting part of VR is not what it is, but rather what it can do. In recent years, there has an emergence of VR applications in the medical field, treating phobias, simulating flights during pilot training, education and development, real estate, among many others. New ways to use currently available headsets are constantly being developed and the industry is quickly growing. With every new product, it's becoming increasingly clear that VR is not limited to entertainment and gaming.
Even though the technologies that make current implementation of VR possible are relatively new, the concept itself is older than you think. Although it didn’t appear under the term “virtual reality” that we are familiar with, it first makes an appearance as early as 1935 in the short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” about goggles that provide an immersive experience that includes sight, hearing, touch and smell. After, its introduction to the world of science fiction literature, the idea has been revisited in art and entertainment too many times to list here.
Today’s headsets aren’t the first wave of VR tech available to the public. The 1950s offered the “Cinerama”, a type of movie experience projected from multiple angles onto a curved screen to provide depth and a wider field of view for the audience. Sadly, it was much too costly for most theatres to install and upkeep and was not commercially successful. Virtual reality products were manufactured and sold by VPL (Visual Programming Languages) Research in 1984 and even provided the first versions of the HMD, vr input and spatial audio, but the company ultimately failed in the 1990s. Numerous other VR waves have come and gone in the entertainment industry, but we won’t worry about that for now.
VR is one of those buzzwords that won’t go away in the tech industry and for the first time, there is a rather competitive hardware market. HMDs range from mobile-dependant versions to high quality systems that can support movement tracking. Just some of the current players include Playstation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, Razer’s OSVR, Freefly VR headset and FOVE VR. The list can go on for awhile. There constantly seems to be a new piece of hardware catering to this market. Each headset provides varied capabilities and even more varied price tags, starting at around $15 and reaching roughly $3000. Choosing a piece of hardware you want to work with depends heavily on the audience you want to reach and what you want to make. An expensive headset will have amazing quality and a lot of potential to work with, but not many people can afford their current prices. More affordable headsets may have a larger audience, but there are a fair amount of limitations that developers must work with while making a product.