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How Virtual Reality Works

Virtual Reality Immersion
A virtual reality unit that allows the user to move freely in any direction
A virtual reality unit that allows the user to move freely in any direction
Photo courtesy of VIRTUSPHERE

In a virtual reality environment, a user experiences immersion, or the feeling of being inside and a part of that world. He is also able to interact with his environment in meaningful ways. The combination of a sense of immersion and interactivity is called telepresence. Computer scientist Jonathan Steuer defined it as “the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.” In other words, an effective VR experience causes you to become unaware of your real surroundings and focus on your existence inside the virtual environment.

Jonathan Steuer proposed two main components of immersion: depth of information and breadth of information. Depth of information refers to the amount and quality of data in the signals a user receives when interacting in a virtual environment. For the user, this could refer to a display’s resolution, the complexity of the environment’s graphics, the sophistication of the system’s audio output, et cetera. Steuer defines breadth of information as the “number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented.” A virtual environment experience has a wide breadth of information if it stimulates all your senses. Most virtual environment experiences prioritize visual and audio components over other sensory-stimulating factors, but a growing number of scientists and engineers are looking into ways to incorporate a users’ sense of touch. Systems that give a user force feedback and touch interaction are called haptic systems.

For immersion to be effective, a user must be able to explore what appears to be a life-sized virtual environment and be able to change perspectives seamlessly. If the virtual environment consists of a single pedestal in the middle of a room, a user should be able to view the pedestal from any angle and the point of view should shift according to where the user is looking. Dr. Frederick Brooks, a pioneer in VR technology and theory, says that displays must project a frame rate of at least 20 - 30 frames per second in order to create a convincing user experience.