Virtual reality is most frequently understood to be a completely immersive experience where a user is digitally transported to a simulated space using a headset that blocks out the real world.
In practice, there are two ways to experience VR: using a desktop computer or tablet, or by using a headset, also known as a Head-Mounted Display (HMD). And then, there are two kinds of HMD: dedicated VR headsets with built-in displays, and inexpensive plastic or cardboard headsets that hold a smartphone.
While using a desktop or tablet isn’t exactly “immersive,” it’s often the easiest and lowest-cost method to begin experiencing VR. It also may be more accessible and usable for people with disabilities, and those that wear glasses. Many HMDs are not usable with glasses. If users are wearing HMDs, they should remain seated to avoid risk of falling. Rolling chairs are great for experiencing VR because they allow movement.
Figure 5 – Woman wearing a Head-Mounted Display (HMD). (Image credit: Pexels)
Figure 6 – Woman experiencing VR on a laptop. (Image credit: WOCinTech Chat)
There is also variety in the media used to create VR experiences. Computer-generated worlds are most often associated with VR, where users are often able to interact with the virtual objects around them. However, simpler VR experiences may feature simpler 360 photos and videos. While not as immersive, they are cheaper and easier to create and to experience.
Figure 7 – Example of 360 image: “Roman ruins at Faqra, Lebanon” by Flickr user Nick Hobgood. Select the image to view in 360 using your browser.
Figure 8 – Example of computer-generated image, select to view in 360.
While VR can be experienced via desktop computers or mobile devices, it’s best experienced on headsets. It’s only by using a headset that the experience feels immersive.
There are two kinds of headsets to choose from: all-in-one headsets and phone headsets. All-in-one headsets are just that – they have a built-in screen and audio and are ready to run VR. The higher end all-in-one headsets like the Oculus Rift need to be connected to a high-powered desktop computer to work, but lower-end (and less expensive!) headsets like the Oculus Go are ready to go out of the box.
Alternatively, VR can be experienced using a smartphone, as long as the phone’s operating system is up-to-date, and it has robust enough graphics processing capability. A phone VR headset is inexpensive – from a few dollars for a Google Cardboard headset to $40 or so for a comfortable headset with straps and adjustable lenses.
Figure 9 – An inexpensive VR headset that works with a smartphone.
The major difference between all-in-one headsets and a bring-your-own-phone version is the quality of the VR experience. Dedicated VR headsets offer a higher-quality experience but are more focused on cinematic and gaming experiences. They are also likely to be bundled along with peripherals, like hand controls to allow the user to interact with the VR experience.
Dedicated VR headsets run from about $200 for the all-in-one (no computer required) Oculus Go, to $500 for the HTC Vive and similar headsets, which require connection to a computer for processing power.
Figure 10 – An Oculus Rift, a full-featured all-in-one VR headset.
Phone VR headsets are perfectly adequate for education or training environments. Modern smartphones have built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes that facilitate head-tracking (which is how the VR point of view changes when the user moves their head). Often used without any sort of peripherals (though there are Bluetooth pointers available), users can interact with the VR experience by taking advantage of head tracking to orient their display to activate on-screen targets, or by using a HMD’s button if it’s compatible with the phone to activate targets.
Unfortunately, most wearable VR headsets are incompatible with glasses. The simplest phone VR headsets, like the Google Cardboard, are best for users wearing glasses.
Figure 11 – A Google Cardboard headset – basically the cheapest headset available that works with a smartphone (costs a few dollars), and most likely to be compatible with glasses.
Characteristics and Limitations of Virtual Reality
All VR experiences feature the ability to view the full sphere of the virtual world. When viewed using a desktop computer or tablet, the user must use a mouse or a finger to scroll around the world manually. When experienced via a head-mounted display, there are several features that make the experience feel immersive, including head-tracking and a 3D effect thanks to the lenses in the headset.
Head tracking is when the image the user is viewing shifts based on head movement. Just as in the real world you might turn your head back and forth, and up and down, to see what’s around you, turning your heard in VR allows you to see to the side and above you and behind you in the virtual world. VR-dedicated headsets and smartphones have built-in to measure how the unit is moving, and thus adjust what’s displayed accordingly.
The lenses contained in a VR headset allow you to view a display that is only a few inches from your eyes and simulate a 3D effect to make the world feel more immersive.
Here’s more on how that works:
However, there are also some technical limitations that can lead to motion sickness and limited ability to spend more than a few minutes in VR.
For people with normal vision, the average field of view without turning one’s head is 200 degrees, from left to right (Field of view, n.d.). Phone VR headsets have a smaller field of view, about 90 degrees, than all-in-one headsets, which are around 110 degrees (EngineersDream, 2017). The limited field of view in VR can feel like tunnel vision, disrupting the user’s experience.
Another major challenge in VR is latency (Latency, n.d.). This is how quickly the view in VR changes when the user moves their head. In real life, there is no latency! In VR, the delay between a user’s head movement and the field of view adjusting accordingly may only be a few dozen milliseconds, but even a slight delay is enough to cause motion sickness for many users (Russell, n.d.). Ideally, a VR system should have a delay of no more than 15 milliseconds to be unnoticeable by users (Orland, 2013).
Because of these technical limitations, and the disorientation brought about just by experiencing a virtual world, popular all-in-one headset makers suggest taking a 10 to 15 minute break every 30 minutes (Fagan, 2018).
These technical limitations are the most exacerbated when using smart phones for VR. VR-dedicated headsets are designed with higher processing power to lower latency and increase field of view. The higher-end the headset, from Oculus or HTC, for example, the more real reality-like the experience. The highest quality VR-dedicated headsets have the best experience.
VR-dedicated headsets have additional features that improve the VR experience, often including eye tracking in addition to head tracking to continuously display the best image. “Eye tracking is a sensor technology that enables a device to measure eye position and eye movement. It can determine your level of presence, where your attention is and what you are focusing on, as well as some biometrics (depending on the implementation)” (Rogers, 2019, February 5).
They might also have external cameras to facilitate position tracking, which means that the unit is tracking the physical movement of the user, which allows for standing and moving in a room and having the VR experience adjust accordingly. They also tend to have a higher refresh rate, which in addition to lower latency, results in a display that updates more quickly and reduces motion sickness (D’Argenio, n.d.).
Let’s look at a few VR learning experiences to give you an idea of what’s out there.
Use Cases for VR in Learning
Virtual reality is ideal for experiences that for whatever reason cannot take place in the real world. Virtual reality can be used for:
- Virtual field trips – perhaps to far-flung or otherwise inaccessible places
- Immersive science experiences – tour a cell or the human body; dissect a frog
- Practice public speaking in front of a virtual audience
- Experience historical places or events in 360, like the Titanic or Apollo 11
Yes, this resource was previously listed under augmented reality! You can experience both VR and AR learning experiences via Expeditions. There are tons of VR tours created by professional organizations, and tons more created by educators and students. You can create your own tours using .
You can also lead students through AR and VR tours if you are all on the same Wi-Fi network, preventing them from having to load experiences themselves or getting off track.
Here’s a 360 photo tour of the space station from Expeditions, as it would be viewed in a VR headset:
InCell VR is a free science game that aims to teach learners about cells and how they work. It’s available on a variety of platforms including Google Cardboard, iOS, and Oculus. A review from Common Sense Media suggests that it’s more of a racing game than an educational game, but learners will pick up names of key parts of the cell at least (Monticello Kievlan, n.d.).
Here’s a recording of in-game play:
Titans of Space
This app is an educational guided tour of the solar system, designed for virtual reality. Available on a desktop computer and Oculus and other all-in-one headsets.