Virtual reality has been hyped up enormously in the last couple of years, but 2016 is the year when it becomes available to the masses.

There are many models available; the industry leaders are currently the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive (see video below). The latter also sold as the Steam VR and designed primarily with gamers in mind, even managed to sell 15,000 units in the first 10 minutes! The PlayStation is also set to receive its VR accessory soon. However, as with any new technology, many myths and misconceptions are surrounding it, as well as some frighteningly hefty price tags.

Technological advancements in the world of computers and smartphones has reached something of a peak in recent years. As such, manufacturers are trying to find new ways to revive an increasingly stagnant market by offering the genuinely new experience that is virtual reality. In VR, you're placed, by way of a specially designed headset, into a 360° 3D world, allowing you to look around a simulated environment just as you would in real life. In most cases, particularly in video games, you'll also be able to interact with the virtual environment around you. VR headsets make this possible by using two stereoscopic displays, with one for each eye.

While the displays inside the headset don't represent anything particularly ground-breaking, the sensors that make up the rest of the system are designed to provide a whole new level of immersion. For example, the wearer's head and eye movements are supposed to be aligned with the virtual world. In other words, if the wearer moves his or her head, the scene changes accordingly.

VR should not be confused with the related technology of augmented reality, which refers to digital components such as virtual images being overlaid onto the real environment around you. In other words, augmented reality complements reality, while VR provides an entirely separate experience. Examples of augmented reality devices include Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens.

VR Headset Specifications and What They Mean

Whenever a new technology launches, it comes with a wealth of confusing jargon, and VR is no exception. However, understanding these specifications is necessary for getting the most out of the experience. The main specifications you'll be hearing about are resolution field of view and refresh rate.

Since VR headsets contain displays just like the one in front of you now, the resolution is, of course, a key specification. Cheaper VR displays, such as Google Cardboard, only use one display (such as your smartphone), but it outputs two images with one on each side of the screen. However, the full-fledged VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, provide two displays with one for each eye. Both of them use very high resolutions of 1080x1200 pixels. Of course, the higher the resolution, the clearer the picture, especially as the displays are so close to your eyes, as is the case with VR.

The field of view is another important specification, particularly when it comes to VR for gaming. Although most headsets provide a Field of View (FOV) of 100°, people have a natural FOV of up to 180°, meaning they can perceive the environment around them across 180° without having to move their eyes. Current market leaders, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift, however, only provide an FOV of 110°, although the currently in development StarVR presents an FOV of 210°.

What You Need to Know About Virtual Reality

What You Need to Know About Virtual Reality
Image Source: Oculus

The refresh rate is critical for offering a smooth experience, as it is with regular monitors. While most desktop monitors feature a native refresh rate of 60Hz, meaning that they can display up to 60 images (frames) per second, virtual reality devices sport between 90 and 120Hz. Additionally, you'll need a machine that is powerful enough to render scenes in at least 90 frames per second for an optimal experience.

For greater immersion and to allow wearers to interact with virtual environments, VR headsets may also pack in a variety of sensors, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer and 360° positional tracking.

Is Your Computer Ready?

With prices for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive starting at $600 and $800 respectively, VR certainly isn't cheap to get into. However, when you consider the demanding system requirements of either of these devices, the cost of using the new technology to its fullest rises dramatically. The official recommended system requirements for both systems varies only slightly, but you'll need 8GB of RAM, an Intel i5-4590 processor or better and a nVidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 graphics card or better. This hardware alone makes for a rather expensive rig, and laptops are largely out of the question unless you go for the most powerful models currently available.

It must be stressed that the above are recommended system requirements only. Ultimately, any games you play in VR will need to provide a consistent 90 frames per second at a total resolution of 2160x1200 (2x 1080x1200 displays), something that's well beyond the capabilities of most hardware when it comes to more demanding games. You'll need something more like the $1200 nVidia Titan X graphics card range to enjoy an entirely optimal experience across the board.

Despite all the hype, VR certainly won't be for everyone, particularly those who are susceptible to motion sickness. As such, you'll definitely want to try one of the cheaper ones first, particularly if your nearest store offers a free demo. Ultimately, it might be better to wait for a while until the technology starts to go mainstream. Undoubtedly, the next couple of years will bring numerous refinements to VR, and prices will drop significantly just as they have done with every other new technology that came before. Additionally, as more developers release games and other programmes that are better optimized for VR, they will relax the hardware requirements significantly. However, until 2017 at the earliest, VR is likely to remain mostly in the realm of enthusiasts and early adopters before it heads into the mainstream.