How to Get Started With Virtual Reality (VR)

New to VR? Here's everything you need to know to get started.
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Virtual Reality (VR) is nothing new but it wasn't until recent years that it became commercially available. You don't even need a gaming PC to get started as there are lower-tier VR setups that may accomplish what you want out of a VR system. But if you're new to the world of virtual reality, there are a few things you probably want to be cleared up like What exactly is VR? and How does it work?

There are so many options available on the market ranging from expensive dedicated hardware to cheaper headsets that use your smartphone. It might be intimidating to understand how VR technologies differ but learning what's out there will help you make an informed investment.

Oculus Rift S VR Gaming HeadsetOculus Rift S VR Gaming Headset ×1
HTC Vive Cosmos Elite VR SystemHTC Vive Cosmos Elite VR System ×1
Sony PlayStation VRSony PlayStation VR ×1
Smartphone VR HeadsetSmartphone VR Headset ×1

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Virtual Reality refers to the technology through which users interact with or observe a digitally created 3D space, often using a stereo-screen headset designed specifically for VR use. To the end user, this experience usually equates to a head-worn screen that provides real-time visual output of a virtual 3D environment. Put on the headset and you're instantly transported to a virtual reality!

Some systems also include spacial-audio technology for a more immersive experience. There are also large-scale VR systems that provide omnidirectional movement so you can walk endlessly in a virtual world. These are more common in places like VR arcades rather than home VR-systems.

For most average gamers and entry-level VR hobbyists, a PC or console with VR support is going to be your best starting point. Both have their pros and cons and which works best for you will depend on things like space, budget, and preference.

Makers and programmers are doing some pretty cool stuff combining VR and AR (Augmented Reality), like Mario Bros in Central Park. In short, it's the closest we're getting to a holodeck any time soon.

VR System

Choosing a VR system often boils down to a few key questions.

What VR software do you want to use?

First, decide what you want out of a VR system. Some VR systems offer light experiences for simple viewing entertainment. Others are more complex and require the user to interact with the game using controllers and room tracking.

What is your budget?

Don't spend more than you have to but splurging on VR hardware can be really fun if you've got room for it in your budget. Before you research, set a hard limit on how much you're willing to spend on things like a VR headset or controllers. The costs can add up quickly, but planning will help.

How much space do you have?

If you use something low-key (like a smartphone VR app) without room tracking, you just need enough room to sit or stand. If you want to engage with big environments, you may need to arrange a large vacant space just for room-scale VR.

Primary options from which users can choose

Smartphone VR

These setups often include a headset designed to hold your smartphone in front of your eyes while a compatible application splits the screen into a stereo-viewing experience for the weather. These are the most inexpensive and least interactive VR systems as they offer no user input.

Console VR

Certain console manufacturers have tried their hand at VR over the years--including Nintendo's Virtual Boy experiment. But today, it's PlayStation VR that takes the cake. With a headset, controllers, and console compatibility, this is one of the easiest ways to get a modern VR experience.

PC VR

One of the best commercial experiences you can have with VR today is with the help of a PC. With the right specs, you can access more VR content and won't be limited by the proprietary applications that come with console and smartphone VR systems. PC users can choose between multiple headsets from different vendors and custom tailor their experience with far more control.

Smartphone VR Headset

If you want to experience VR but aren't ready to shell out hundreds of dollars on a dedicated system, a smartphone VR headset is an excellent place to start. They don't offer things like room tracking so it won't know if you're crouching or walking. However, these setups can use your phone's accelerometer to track if your head is tilted or looking around.

Research the model of your phone online to make sure it's VR capable before buying a headset. If it is, check out something like this smartphone VR headset and see what VR apps you can find on the app store.

If you want something more immersive that you can interact with using controllers, you probably want to avoid a smartphone headset and invest in something more substantial like a console VR system.

PlayStation 4

Out of today's modern systems, the PlayStation is the only commercial console to offer a viable VR system for gaming at home (as of December 2020). PlayStation VR is compatible with both the PlayStation 4 and new PlayStation 5 console.

The PlayStation VR System is currently $269 at Amazon. It comes with a VR headset and two hand-held controllers. This is a limited system that offers a degree of room-scale support. The headset and controllers are tracked by the Sony camera in tandem with internal gyroscopic sensors.

HTC Vive

If you're a PC user, you're in a better position to create the ultimate VR experience. The two biggest VR systems for PC are the Oculus and HTC Vive. Each system uses IR sensors for room-scale tracking but while the Oculus headset interacts with just one, the HTC Vive requires the use of at least two.

The minimum specs requirements vary depending on the system you want to use. Here are the details from the official Oculus and HTC Vive websites:

VR System CPU GPU Memory
Oculus Intel i3-6100 / AMD Ryzen 3 1200, FX4350 equivalent or better NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti / AMD Radeon RX 470 equivalent or better 8GB
HTC Vive Intel Core i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060, AMD Radeon R9 480 equivalent or better 4GB
VR Space

Once you've decided on a system, you need to set up the physical space in which you plan to use your VR system. Determine what boundaries are necessary to interact with your VR application and make sure any furniture and additional objects are completely out of reach.

In addition to prepping a location, let others around you know that you're planning to use the VR system. Unexpected motions can cause injuries to those around who aren't expecting you to be totally immersed and blinded to your actual surroundings.

Different VR platforms offer a variety of settings that can custom tailor your virtual experience. One of the first things you should look for is headset settings. Make sure the lenses and software are optimized to show the best image possible without inducing any headaches.

Most systems use a "bounding box." This is a virtual barrier that appears in the VR environment to help orient the user to be aware of the physical space they're in without taking off the headset. It often appears as a colorful grid. Some systems, like the HTC Vive, have the ability to create a custom bounding box. If you have low ceilings or an awkwardly shaped room, this can help create a safer experience suited to your needs and limitations.

If you aren't sure what you can adjust with your system, research online for tutorials and suggestions from others in the VR community.

Once your system is set up and ready to go, all you have left to do is get lost in the crazy, fun technology that is virtual reality. You can play games, create 3D art, explore the planet with things like Google Earth, and even use software for real-world applications like architectural design.

That's how easy it is to get started! If you have some suggestions for VR beginners, drop us a comment and welcome our new members to the VR community.