How do virtual reality headsets work?

How do virtual reality headsets work? Blog banner

For a long time, the notion of virtual reality could be found within the pages of science-fiction books and fantastical films; it was little more than a narrative gimmick to ensure the readers kept turning pages and the audiences kept buying tickets.

Of course, you’ll know now how these dreams of virtual reality have been made real. VR as a part of modern life is undeniable because it captures the imagination of the casual user while giving the more commercially-minded a brand new way to market or promote their business.

But, how do the more practical aspects of virtual reality work? What’s the science behind VR? Which headset should I go for? Will it connect to my smartphone and, if so, what can I do with that?

Our article answers all these questions (and more). Take a look.

Let’s start at the beginning

There are numerous junctions in history where you could say “here is where the concept of virtual reality was first founded”. We’d argue that some of the most concrete examples would be Leonardo De Vinci’s original explorations of perception which played with first and third-person perspectives, and sci-fi writer Stanley G Weinbaum’s description of virtual reality way back in 1935.

For 1935, Weinbaum’s description is almost prophetic:

“A movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”

We owe today’s VR age to the American teenager Palmer Luckey who created the first prototype of a VR headset which would eventually evolve into the Oculus Rift. A $250,000 Kickstarter campaign was launched, leading to millions of dollars worth of contributions and, finally, a $2 billion dollar buyout courtesy of one Mark Zuckerberg.

Now that you have an idea of the trajectory and growth of virtual reality, here’s how the technology works.

How do virtual reality glasses work?

Virtual reality is possible because of a well-known phenomenon called stereopsis. A basic explanation of stereopsis is that it refers to our ability to perceive depth because of the subtle horizontal differences in the image that each eye receives when we look at something.

So, what a virtual headset does is simulate this vision while blocking out any interaction from the real world – this creates an immersive experience. There are two autofocus lenses placed between the screen and your eyes, and these lenses adjust according to your eye movements and positioning.

Here’s the vital stage of the process. Video is sent from whichever console/computer is connected to the headset (via HDMI), after which the lenses focus and reshape the image for each eye to create a stereoscopic 3D image – the two images are angled to ‘mimic’ how each of our eyes views the world.

One thing that VR headsets can do to increase immersion and make the experience more real is increasing the field of view. 360-degree displays would be unnecessary (plus, none of us have 360-degree vision!) – instead, VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have found that 100 or 110-degree fields of view will suffice.

To ensure that the user does not get motion sickness, a minimum frame rate of around 60 frames per second is required.

How do you move and interact?

One of the most important parts of virtual reality is how to move around and engage with the virtual world. Movement is regulated by an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a magnetometer – the accelerometer detects three-dimensional movement as the gyroscope detects angular movement, while the magnetometer measures magnetism at particular locations.

How does virtual reality work with smartphones?

Here are the requirements that your smartphone must meet in order for you to enjoy virtual reality from the comfort of your own phone.

Good resolution

Resolution refers to the number of pixels displayed on your phone. The more of them there are, the clearer the picture is. Most modern smartphones will have an adequate resolution. However, if you’re shopping for a new smartphone with the intention of using VR then you should prioritise resolution.

We recommend using a smartphone that is full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels). That said, you’ll still experience a pleasing VR experience with the slightly less resolution (like 1280 x 720 pixels  for example).


Using a gyroscope – which we mentioned earlier – you can change the orientation of a smartphone screen or tablet (vertical or horizontal depending on how you rotate the device). Having a gyroscope is vital because it allows you to rotate your head and look around while in virtual reality. While many VR games and apps can run on smartphones without a gyroscope, you wouldn’t be able to ‘look around’ and explore the virtual reality.

Do you want to protect your system?

We have a vast range of VR accessories and we specialise in VR protective cases. Now that you know how the technology works, you can put VR to its full potential without worrying about its safety.
To discuss your VR needs and anything else that might come up, give us a call on 0800 8400 166. You can alternatively contact us here.

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