Let’s learn about virtual reality

Technology can fool our eyes into seeing different worlds

a girl wearing VR goggles

Virtual reality headsets fool our eyes into seeing flat images as full worlds we can walk around in.

RyanKing999/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Most of us haven’t been able to travel a lot lately. But with virtual reality, you can visit the beach, explore a mountain or more — all without leaving your house. Virtual reality (sometimes called VR) is technology that fools the brain into seeing an artificial world with depth, even though it’s based on flat pictures.

Because our eyes are slightly separate from each other, each eye sees a slightly different image. In real life, that gives our eyes depth perception, and helps us see how far away things are. But in virtual reality, technology can present each eye with a slightly different image. This produces an illusion of a three-dimensional space. If computers send a constant stream of these images, you can turn your head, walk and dance around full virtual worlds. 

Many people enjoy games in virtual reality. But there’s science to be done in virtual worlds, too. Some scientists are using virtual reality to help people conquer their fear of heights. Others are using it to help people feel less pain.

Right now, virtual reality is mostly visual. People can’t hear sound or touch objects in these virtual worlds. But scientists are working on that, too. One day, you might be able to wander one of these worlds and touch or smell objects that aren’t really there at all.

This video from MIT shows how a cardboard box and your phone can create a virtual experience.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Cool Jobs: Doing real science in virtual worlds: Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers. Scientists are using VR technology to tackle real-world problems. (4/13/2017) Readability: 7.1

Are you scared of heights? Virtual reality could help: In a therapy app, an avatar coaches people through sky-high situations. (8/14/2018) Readability: 8.2

Viewing virtual reality of icy landscapes may relieve pain: Traveling to polar vistas via virtual reality eased a temporary burning in the viewers’ skin. The same VR also lessened simulated chronic pain. (1/10/2020) Readability: 6.7

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If you want to explore the worlds available in virtual reality, you could purchase an expensive virtual reality headset. But you don’t have to. In fact, you can build your own with a little cardboard, some lenses and your smartphone.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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