VR developer focused on creating immersive storytelling experiences. Follow me on Twitter: @VRHeavenNews
September 23rd, 2023

What is a Virtual Reality (VR) Headset?

A virtual reality (VR) headset is like a pair of goggles you wear on your head where instead of seeing the real world around you, you see a computer-generated world. This digital world moves with your head, so if you look left, you see the left side of that virtual world, and if you look up, you see the sky or ceiling in the virtual scene.

But how exactly do VR headsets work? Let’s delve into the intricacies of them:

How do VR Headsets Work? (Explained Simply)

VR headsets work by showing two images of different angles to each eye, replicating binocular vision. This creates a 3D effect, making things appear as if they have depth, just like in real life. Cameras, infrared LEDs and controllers are used to track your movements and allow you to move around in the virtual world.

VR headset diagram

Quest 2 diagram

1. Display

Most VR headsets use OLED or LCD screens. These screens are split into two sections, one for each eye. They display images in stereoscopic 3D, giving depth to the visuals and creating an immersive experience.

2. Lenses

Lenses play a vital role by focusing and reshaping the image for each eye, creating a stereoscopic 3D effect. They ensure that the visuals appear farther away, simulating real-life vision and depth perception.

3. Sensors

Sensors detect and track the movements of your head. Common sensors include gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers. They ensure that the virtual environment reacts to your movements in real-time.

4. Controllers:

Many VR systems come with special controllers you hold in your hands. These controllers also have sensors, so they can be tracked in space. This way, you can use your hands in the virtual world to pick things up, wave at someone, draw, and more.

5. Base Stations or Cameras (for some setups): Some VR systems use external devices called base stations or cameras placed in the room to track the headset and controllers’ movement. This can provide a more precise and wide-ranging movement than sensors just on the headset. However, this is for more expensive setups and most people won’t have to deal with this.

6. Software: This is the magic behind what you see and do in VR. Software creates the virtual worlds or experiences. When you move, it adjusts the world in real-time to match your movements.

Does a VR Headset Need to Be Connected to Anything?

Some VR headsets, like the Oculus Quest series, are standalone, meaning they don’t require any connections. However, others, like the Oculus Rift, need to be connected to a PC to access high-end VR experiences.

What Do You Need to Use a VR Headset?

Different VR headsets have varying requirements: headsets like the Meta Quest are standalone, meaning they can operate without any additional devices, meanwhile headsets such as the Valve Index require a VR-Ready computer and basestations to be set up on your walls.

Requirements for using virtual reality:

  1. A VR headset like the Meta Quest 3
  2. A smartphone during first-time set up
  3. Internet connection
  4. Comfort accessories
  5. Free space
  6. A cable to connect to your PC for more powerful PCVR experiences (optional)

If you’re using a headset like the PSVR 2, you’ll need a PS5 as well. Headsets like the HTC Vive and Valve Index require a powerful computer and external base stations.

The Meta Quest headsets are the easiest to get started, because everything needed comes in the box. You just need a phone for first time set up and then you won’t need it again.

How Much Space is Needed for VR?

Standalone VR headsets only require 2m by 2m free space (6.5 ft). Meanwhile headsets with external tracking like the Valve Index, HTC Vive and Pimax 8K require external basestations to be set up on your walls on top of the play space you already require.

The amount of space needed in VR also depends on the game or app you’re using.

Stationary games: This is for experiences where you mostly remain in one place. You might look around, lean, or use hand controllers, but you don’t walk around much. 99% of games and apps are stationary experiences – where movement happens with the controller.

Roomscale games: These games allows you to physically walk around and explore a larger virtual space. Your physical movement in the real world is mirrored in the VR world, enhancing immersion. Only a small percentage of games support roomscale.  As the name suggests, it’s ideal to have an empty room for these experiences.

Do All VR Headsets Need a Phone?

No, not all VR headsets require a phone. Early VR devices, like Google Cardboard, utilized smartphones as their display and processing center. However, modern VR headsets often come with built-in displays and processing capabilities and most don’t use a phone anymore. The Oculus Quest only requires a phone for first time set up and then it won’t be needed afterwards.

Do You Need a Computer for VR?

While some VR headsets need a connection to a powerful PC, others do not. Standalone VR headsets have all the necessary hardware built-in. However, for more graphically-intensive VR experiences, a powerful PC may be necessary.

Headsets that require a PC:

  1. Oculus Rift & Oculus Rift S
  2. HTC Vive, HTC Vive Pro, & HTC Vive Cosmos
  3. Valve Index
  4. HP Reverb G2
  5. Pimax 5K Plus, 8K, & 8KX
  6. Windows Mixed Reality Headsets

Don’t Require a PC (Standalone VR Headsets):

  1. Oculus Quest 1, 2 and 3
  2. HTC Vive Focus & Vive Focus Plus:
  3. Pico 4

The Oculus/Meta headsets don’t need a PC, but if you wish to play PC VR games on them, you can connect them to a PC using the Oculus Link cable or wirelessly through Air Link.

What is a VR Headset Used For?

VR headsets are used for various things such as gaming, fitness, social interaction, medication and more. As the technology continues growing, new use cases are emerging regularly.

  1. Gaming: One of the most popular uses for VR is gaming. Players can be immersed in a 3D environment, experiencing games in a much more interactive way than traditional platforms allow.
  2. Fitness: There are VR apps designed to get users moving, dancing, or boxing.
  3. Entertainment and Media: Beyond gaming, VR offers new ways to experience movies, VR concerts, and other events. Imagine being “in” a movie or “attending” a virtual concert.
  4. Social Interaction: Platforms like VRChat, AltspaceVR, and Facebook Horizon allow users to interact in a 3D virtual space, socializing in unique environments or attending events.
  5. Art and Design: Artists use VR to create sculptures, paintings, and immersive interactive installations.
  6. Travel and Exploration: Without leaving home, you can take virtual tours of tourist destinations, museums, or even outer space.
  7. Meditation and Relaxation: VR environments can transport users to peaceful locations like beaches or forests, promoting relaxation and stress relief.
  8. Therapy and Rehabilitation: VR can be used in physical rehabilitation, allowing patients to perform guided exercises. It’s also used in psychological therapy, such as for treating phobias by gradually exposing individuals to their fears in a controlled environment.

Related: 38 Cool Things You Can Do in VR

VR Terminology

When navigating the VR space, you might come across various terminology. Here’s what they mean:

FOV (Field of View)

diagram explaining what is FOV

Imagine standing in the middle of a wide open field. The amount you can see without moving your eyes or head is your “field of view.” In VR, FOV refers to how wide or narrow the virtual world appears to be when you look through the headset.

Why It Matters: A wider FOV means you can see more of the virtual world at once, making the experience feel more immersive and natural. If it’s too narrow, it might feel like you’re looking through binoculars or a tunnel.

Refresh Rate

This refers to how many times per second the image on the screen is updated or “refreshed.” So, if a VR headset has a refresh rate of 90Hz, it means the image is updated 90 times in one second.

Why It Matters: A higher refresh rate generally means smoother visuals. This can be especially important in VR to prevent feelings of motion sickness and to make the virtual environment feel more real.

Degrees of Freedom (DoF):

Degrees of freedom (DoF) describes how you can move in the virtual environment. There are two common types:

  • 3DoF (Three Degrees of Freedom): You can look around in any direction (left-right, up-down, and tilt your head), but you can’t physically move your head or body forward, backward, or side-to-side in the virtual space.
  • 6DoF (Six Degrees of Freedom): Along with looking around, you can also move your head or body in any direction (forward-backward, left-right, up-down) in the virtual world.

6DoF offers a more immersive and realistic VR experience because it allows you to move and look around just like you would in the real world. 3DoF is more limited and is often found in simpler or more affordable VR setups.


This is how the VR system knows where you are and how you’re moving. For example, if you turn your head to the left or reach out with your hand, the VR system “tracks” that movement and adjusts the virtual world accordingly.

Types of tracking:

  • Inside-out Tracking: The VR headset has built-in cameras that look outwards to understand your movement and the position of any controllers. This method doesn’t require external sensors.
  • Outside-in Tracking: External cameras or sensors placed in the room look at the VR headset and controllers to determine their position and movement.

Why It Matters: Accurate tracking is crucial for a convincing VR experience. If the system doesn’t accurately track your movements, the virtual world won’t respond correctly, which can be disorienting or even cause motion sickness.

I hope this clarifies all you need to know about VR headsets and how they work. If anything is confusing, feel free to ask me and I’ll be happy to clarify: hello@vrheaven.io