What is virtual reality (VR)?

Virtual reality is digital content that can be enjoyed in a fully immersive 3D space by using a VR headset or HMD (head-mounted display). The goal of a VR headset is for users to feel fully immersed in a simulated environment, isolated from the real world.

HMD (head-mounted display): generally refers to VR headsets, but AR glasses and mixed reality headsets are also technically considered head-mounted displays.VR is not to be mistaken with augmented reality (AR). AR overlays information on top of the real world, while virtual reality recreates a whole new digital environment. There is an intermediate point between the two, called mixed reality (MR).

See our VR-AR-MR technology guide for more information.

Tethered VR headsets (high-end VR headsets, PC VR, desktop VR)

Tethered VR means that the headset is physically connected to a computer by cables, such as HDMI and/or USB.

Tethered virtual reality headsets are currently much more immersive than other types of VR due to the high-quality experience they can deliver. These premium VR headsets require a certain amount of setup space as well as a constant cable connection to a powerful gaming PC (generally a very expensive acquisition).

A few manufacturers are starting to create PC VR headsets that require less computing power. However, this typically means sacrificing tracking accuracy and graphics quality.

Thanks to Intel’s WiGig (Wireless Gigabit) technology, wireless adapters exist to combine the best of both worlds: freedom of motion in combination with high-quality VR experiences powered by a high-performance computer.

  • Applications:
    • Professional
    • Gaming
    • Education
    • Tourism
    • Art
  • Industry favorites:
  • Good for people who:
    • Already own a powerful PC or have a big budget
    • Require a truly immersive experience
  • Pros of desktop VR:
    • High-end virtual experiences
    • Access to quality virtual reality content
  • Cons of desktop VR:
    • Limited freedom to move
    • Requires room space and an advanced cable management system
    • Hidden costs (PC, controllers, sensors, and cameras)

Standalone VR headsets (all-in-one HMDs)

This category of headsets requires the least external interaction; standalone headsets are plug-and-play, minus the plug. Apart from charging the battery and perhaps creating an account to access certain VR platforms, standalone VR headsets don’t need anything else from the user.

Indeed, standalone VR headsets have built-in processors, sensors, batteries, storage memory, and displays, so they don’t require a connection to a PC or a smartphone. That is why users also refer to them as all-in-one VR headsets. Since they are wireless, users don’t have to limit themselves to their living rooms.

Generally speaking, all-in-one virtual reality headsets are much less powerful than PC headsets. They offer lower-quality graphics and lower refresh rates.

However, various important tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and HTC seem to be focusing more and more efforts on this VR category. Indeed, the future lies in wireless yet powerful virtual reality, rather than in tethered VR headsets. At some point, these categories will be more dominant in VR as they are more affordable and dynamic.

  • Applications:
    • Casual gaming
    • Watching movies
    • Social VR
  • Industry favorites:
  • Good for people who:
    • Don’t have access to a powerful PC
    • Lack time and space to set up a complex system
  • Pros of standalone VR:
    • Wireless
    • No hidden costs
  • Cons of standalone VR:
    • Less powerful than tethered headsets
    • Battery life

Smartphone VR headsets and handheld VR viewers

Smartphone VR headsets, as their name indicates, make use of smartphones to provide a virtual reality experience. Users must simply slide their smartphones into the headset; the screen will be right in front of the user’s eyes, with a set of lenses that create a sense of depth (like other types of headsets).

It is better to use recently released smartphones, which tend to be the most powerful. The quality of the VR experience indeed depends on the smartphone being used. Varying factors include the type of screen and its resolution.

Also, VR apps use the smartphone’s camera and built-in accelerometers. Good-quality mobile VR headsets can cost over a hundred US dollars, but there are cheaper solutions, like handheld VR viewers.

Handheld VR headsets– such as the original Google Cardboard– also require a smartphone, but are often made of low-cost materials. Users must hold these VR headsets up to their face to experience VR as there is generally no strapping provided. These are good for limited VR experiences via a smartphone.

  • Applications:
    • Casual gaming
    • Watching movies
    • Social VR
  • Industry favorites:
  • Good for people who:
    • Already own a powerful smartphone (high-end smartphone VR headsets)
    • Just want to have a basic virtual reality experience (low-cost VR headsets)
  • Pros of mobile VR:
    • Easy to use and many people already own a smartphone
    • An affordable introduction to VR
  • Cons of mobile VR:
    • May quickly empty the smartphone’s battery
    • Limited immersion compared to PC and standalone VR

Which virtual reality headset to choose?

After choosing a category of VR headset that suits the user’s needs, there are several factors to consider to choose the right VR headset.

Users looking into PC VR headsets will need to think about minimum PC requirements, positional tracking, controllers, and more. Standalone VR headsets and smartphone HMDs don’t offer as much choice in functionalities, but there are still a few technical considerations as well.

The choice also depends on how immersive an experience the user is looking for, as well as budget constraints. Considering the fast pace of development in VR headsets, there are great affordable options available and more costly HMDs that cater to users of all levels.

For more information, see our VR headset buying guide. We have also put together a shortlist of some of the best PC VR headsets of 2021 on the market.

What can virtual reality be used for?

Virtual reality is often seen as the ultimate gaming experience in comparison with today’s PC and console gaming. However, there is much more to VR than entertainment and gaming. The main industries where VR is being applied are:

  • Educational and training
  • Medical and healthcare
  • Art and tourism
  • Marketing and sales
  • Military and aerospace
  • Social sciences and psychology
  • Engineering and design

In some fields like the military, medical, and educational sectors, virtual reality is used to simulate tough, real-world experiences. Users may receive quality training without certain inconveniences such as risk, distance, and high costs.

For example, soldiers can simulate being on the battlefield, astronauts can enact life on Mars, and a surgeon may practice complex surgeries without the risk of harming a patient.

Real-life medical patients can also benefit from virtual reality. Some VR applications may help with therapy for people with PTSD, for example. It can also help patients that need to help regain motor and cognitive function.

Other industries like art and tourism also use the power of VR. Thanks to 3D scanning, important archaeological sites and museums have been entirely recreated. Users may visit the Machu Picchu or admire the Louvre’s chefs-d’œuvre from the comfort of their living rooms, kitchen, or even bathroom.

Many, many more applications for VR exist for several other industries such as fashion, automotive, engineering, sports, architecture, etc. The possibilities for using virtual reality are virtually endless!