VR Headsets

Your constantly-updated definition of VR Headsets and collection of videos and articles

What are VR Headsets?

A VR headset is a head-mounted device that provides immersive virtual experiences. Also known as a head-mounted display, it typically includes a pair of lenses that users look through, a screen (or screens) inside the device, and a mechanism to secure it to the head.

Here’s a look at the evolution of headsets, from stereoscopic photographs that allowed people to see in 3D in the 1800s to modern high-end standalone devices that let users interact with virtual content through controllers.

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Components of a VR headset

A virtual reality headset includes the following components:

  1. Display: One or two screens that display stereoscopic images. Stereoscopic images show slightly different versions of the same image for each eye to create a three-dimensional effect, thus giving the illusion of depth and space.

  2. Lenses: Lenses focus the pictures for each eye, creating a convincing 3D virtual environment. They also help to enlarge the image, filling the user’s field of vision for a more immersive experience.

  3. Tracking Sensors: VR headsets can include various sensors such as gyroscopes (to track orientation), accelerometers (for movement), and cameras (to detect the user’s hand movements and surroundings). These track the user’s head movements and adjust the image accordingly to ensure that the virtual environment aligns with physical movements.

  4. Input Devices: Many headsets work with handheld controllers or gloves that track hand and finger movements. Some also support voice commands, eye tracking, and even full-body tracking for a more interactive experience.

  5. Spatial Audio: Headsets often include built-in headphones or earphones that provide spatial audio to mimic how people hear sound in the real world. Audio enhances immersion, as the user can experience sounds as if they were coming from specific directions and distances within the virtual environment.

  6. Comfort Features: Good headsets must be comfortable, especially for extended use. Adjustable straps, padding and balanced weight distribution minimize discomfort.

  7. Connectivity: VR headsets may connect to a computer or a gaming console or operate as standalone devices. Tethered headsets require a physical connection (often via HDMI or USB) to a PC or console, while standalone headsets are self-contained units with their own onboard processing power.

The components of a VR headset or head-mounted display.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Types of VR Headsets

  1. Tethered VR Headsets connect to a computer or gaming console through a cable. They typically offer high-quality graphics and powerful processing capabilities because they utilize the hardware of the connected device.

  2. Standalone VR Headsets are all-in-one devices that don’t require a connection to an external computer or console. They have built-in screens, processors, and batteries. Standalone headsets are generally more portable and easier to set up than tethered ones. Standalone headsets usually have lower-resolution displays compared to tethered headsets.

  3. Smartphone VR Headsets typically only include a case and lenses that create a 3D effect. The user’s smartphone provides the display and processors. The user only needs to insert the smartphone into the headset to enjoy the virtual experience. However, it offers lower-quality graphics and processing power than tethered and standalone headsets.

  4. Hybrid VR Headsets work both as standalone devices and when connected to a PC or console. They attempt to combine the best aspects of standalone and tethered headsets.

VR Headsets’ Impact on User Experience

A well-designed headset ensures an immersive, safe and enjoyable virtual reality experience. A poor-quality headset will likely cause physical discomfort (eye strain, cybersickness) and frustration.

Here are the key parameters that influence the user’s experience

  • High resolution and display quality: The VR headset’s resolution determines the images’ clarity and sharpness. Higher resolutions reduce the screen door effect (visible lines between pixels) and enhance the visual experience.

    The screen inside the headset is extremely close to the eye. As a result, users can see individual pixels on low-resolution displays.

    © Aliljet, Public Domain

  • Comfortable Fit: Since users wear headsets for extended periods, they should be comfortable. Adjustable straps, balanced weight distribution, and padding around the eyes and face are essential. The headset should also accommodate different head sizes and shapes and be compatible with eyeglasses if needed.

  • Wide Field of View (FoV): The human field of vision is that portion of space where we can see objects at any given moment. To see objects outside the natural field of vision, we must shift our gaze, turn our heads or rotate our bodies. Headsets with a wide field of view (FoV) cover more of the user’s natural field of vision. While a FoV around 100 degrees or more is generally good, a higher FoV simulates peripheral vision.

  • Accurate and Responsive Tracking: Good headsets have precise tracking systems that accurately translate the user’s physical movements into the virtual environment. Tracking includes both head and hand movements. Systems like 6DoF (Six Degrees of Freedom) tracking are ideal since they track user movements and orientations across three axes (X, Y and Z). The six types of movements are:

    • Surge: Move left and right along the X-axis

    • Heave: Move up and down along the Y-axis

    • Sway: Moves front and back along the Z-axis

    • Yaw: Rotate along the vertical axis (i.e., turn the head left and right).

    • Pitch: Rotate along the side-to-side axis (i.e., look up and down).

    • Roll: Rotate along the front-to-back axis (i.e., tilt the head towards the shoulders).

Systems like 6DoF (Six degrees of freedom) enable headsets to accurately track the user’s movements, which, in turn, creates a realistic and immersive VR experience, as it mirrors how humans interact with the real world.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Low Latency: Latency is the delay between an input and output. In a computer-generated environment, the input is the user’s actions. For example, the user rotates their head to see what’s on the right side in their peripheral vision. The output is the content the user sees as a result of their movement. In this case, the screen displays the scene on the right side of the virtual environment. A latency lower than 20 ms is crucial to prevent motion sickness and ensure a smooth experience. 

  • High Refresh Rate: Refresh rate refers to the number of times a screen displays a new image per second. It is measured in hertz (Hz), where one hertz equals one new image per second. Studies indicate that the human eye can detect images at even 75Hz. Most VR headsets offer upwards of 90Hz—a higher refresh rate results in a smoother video experience. However, very high refresh rates also consume more energy and processing power.

  • Quality Audio: Integrated audio solutions enhance immersion and improve the overall virtual experience, bringing it as close to real life as possible.

Other hardware-related factors that enhance the user experience include compatibility across platforms and devices, ergonomic controllers, adjustable lenses, processing power and battery life.

Barriers and Challenges to VR Headset Adoption

While virtual reality has made significant strides, there are several reasons why VR headsets are not as common as other consumer electronics like smartphones or laptops:

  • Cost: High-quality headsets can be expensive, especially those that rely on a powerful computer to run. In addition, technology is rapidly evolving, and some consumers might be hesitant to invest in technology that could quickly become outdated. 

  • Content Availability: There's a limited range of VR content compared to other media formats. While there are notable games and applications, the breadth and variety of content available for VR are still growing.

  • Proprietary Software, Platforms and Compatibility Issues: Many VR headsets are often tied to specific software ecosystems or platforms, which can be seen as a form of "locking in.” This means that the headset is designed to work primarily with the manufacturer's proprietary software and platforms. While there are open standards and cross-platform tools in virtual reality, compatibility can still be an issue. Some headsets may not support certain applications or games due to software restrictions or hardware limitations.

  • Weight and Comfort: Many headsets are bulky and heavy, which causes discomfort or fatigue during extended use. The weight distribution and ergonomics of the headset are crucial for a comfortable experience, especially in applications that require long-term use.

  • Battery Life (for wireless headsets): Wireless headsets offer greater freedom of movement but are often limited by battery life. This can be a significant limitation for long gaming sessions or professional applications.

  • Heat and Noise: Electronic components in headsets can generate heat and noise, which can be distracting and uncomfortable for the user.

  • Cable Management (for tethered headsets): Tethered headsets can restrict movement and create a hazard with cables lying around. While this provides a consistent power supply and can support higher processing power, it detracts from the sense of freedom in VR.

  • Eye Strain, Discomfort and Motion Sickness: Prolonged use of headsets can cause eye strain and discomfort due to factors like flickering, brightness levels, and the need for the eyes to constantly adjust focus between real and virtual distances. In addition, if the virtual environment doesn’t synchronize with the user’s movement, users might get motion sickness. This VR technology-induced sickness has its own term, cybersickness.

  • Complex Setup and Space Requirements: A VR system setup can be complex. It might need space for safe movement, sensors for tracking, and sometimes a tether to a powerful PC. Not everyone has the space or desire to set up a dedicated VR area in their home.

  • Lack of Awareness or Interest: Some people might not be aware of what virtual reality has to offer, or they may not be interested in the type of content currently available. Additionally, people who haven't tried high-quality VR might not appreciate its potential due to experiences with lower-quality VR.

  • Portability and Accessibility: Unlike smartphones or tablets, many virtual reality systems are not easily portable and require a stationary setup.

  • Social Acceptance: The immersive nature of virtual reality sets it apart from other technologies that allow for multitasking or social interaction in the physical world. Some people view this aspect of VR as isolating or unconventional.

Practical Applications of VR Headsets

An ideal headset gets out of the way of the user’s experience. It must not draw attention to itself. As VR pioneer Mel Slater describes in this video, virtual reality can open up a world of possibilities across various domains.

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Virtual reality professionals across various industries have embraced headsets. Here are some of the key applications:


One of the most popular uses of VR headsets is in the gaming industry. They provide an immersive gaming experience where players feel like they are inside the game environment.

Games such as Horizon Call of the Mountain transport users into an action-packed adventure.

© Sony Interactive Entertainment, Fair Use

Education and Training

VR is used for educational purposes, including virtual classrooms, simulations and training programs. It’s particularly useful in fields like medicine, aviation, and military training, where practicing in a virtual environment can be safer and more cost-effective. 

Virtual reality is also used in sports training and fitness programs, providing immersive workouts and simulating various outdoor activities. For example, many players of Germany’s under-17 football team undertook training through virtual goggles to develop cognitive skills and improve decision-making on the football field. Head coach Christian Wuck shared his experience with the technology and suggested potential applications in an interview with Sky Sports:

“We have found that players who have good orientation on the pitch are also good with the VR glasses. Our best players are the best at both… It could help injured players prepare to get back on the pitch… If they cannot train, maybe they can still train with the VR glasses. Maybe it could be used at half-time.”

Christian Wuck, Head Coach, German National U17 Football Team, from an interview with Sky Sports.


Healthcare professionals can use virtual reality for therapy, surgery simulation, skills training, and patient rehabilitation. It helps in treating conditions like PTSD, anxiety disorders, and phobias through controlled exposure in a virtual environment.

Penumbra’s rehabilitation system, REAL System, focuses on patient recovery. Designed for individuals recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or other neurological conditions, the system offers 360-degree video, instructor-guided and self-guided travel and nature experiences and interactive exercises that stimulate physical and cognitive functions.

© Penumbra, Fair Use

Architecture and Design

Virtual reality technology allows architects and real estate agents to create virtual tours of buildings and properties. This enables potential buyers or investors to explore properties remotely and architects to visualize their designs more effectively.

Similarly, industrial designers can use VR for 3D modeling and design to create and visualize their work in a three-dimensional space.

Tools such as Enscape3d turn technical blueprints into 3D, VR-ready experiences that people can interact with and experience in real-time.

© Enscape, Fair Use

Tourism and Exploration

VR headsets offer virtual travel experiences, allowing users to explore tourist destinations, natural environments, or historical sites without leaving their homes.

International hotel chain Marriott piloted the “VRoom Service,” in which guests ordered virtual reality experiences to their rooms. The company also launched a virtual travel content platform, “VR Postcards,” that included immersive travel stories from real travelers. In this example, the user can see what’s “behind” them in a virtual space.

© Marriott International, Fair Use

Art and Culture

Artists use VR to create immersive artworks and experiences, offering viewers new ways to engage with art. Museums and galleries have also adopted VR to create virtual tours and interactive exhibits.

The Louvre Museum in Paris launched an immersive VR experience called “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass” that helps the viewer experience the painting from their home, away from the crowds. Viewers can explore the artwork in ways not possible in real life. They can get up close to the subject, see the fine grains, get a detailed view of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting processes and even try to understand the woman in the painting.

© Musée du Louvre, Fair Use

Entertainment and Media

The entertainment industry uses VR for immersive movies and interactive experiences, where viewers can feel like they are in the story or event.

“Henry” is an Emmy award-winning animated virtual reality movie about a hedgehog who loves hugs.

© Oculus Story Studio, Fair Use

Automotive Industry

Automobile manufacturers use VR in vehicle design, simulation, and testing. Engineers and designers can analyze and experience a car’s design and functionality before building it.

BMW has applied gaming technology (Unreal Engine) to its engineering process. The development team uses virtual reality to test virtual prototypes.

© BMW, Fair Use

Space Exploration and Research

Agencies like NASA use VR to simulate space missions to train astronauts, control robotic rovers on other planets, and visualize complex astronomical data.

The applications are continuously evolving as VR technology advances, opening up new possibilities and ways to integrate virtual experiences into different fields.

Learn More about VR Headsets

Learn how to design for virtual reality in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch the Master Class Webinar on How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives by Co-Director of Event Lab, Mel Slater.

For more on virtual reality’s evolution and potential, read The Past, Present and Future of Virtual Reality

Watch Neurotechnologist Conor Russomanno demonstrate the future capabilities of head-mounted devices to make VR more accessible in the TED Talk, A powerful new neurotech tool for augmenting your mind.

Virtual Reality Usability Design by David Gerhard and Wil J. Norton provides a comprehensive guide on usable and immersive VR experiences.

For an in-depth understanding of Extended Reality (XR), read The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality by Jason Jerald.

Questions about Vr Headsets

What are the key differences between various types of VR headsets?

The key differences between various types of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets lie primarily in their display technology, tracking capabilities, connectivity, and intended use. Understanding these differences is crucial for designers, as each type offers distinct experiences and design opportunities.

  1. Display Technology:

    • Tethered Headsets: These headsets, like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, connect to a PC or console. They offer high-quality displays with advanced graphics due to the computing power of the connected device.

    • Standalone Headsets: Devices like the Oculus Quest operate independently without needing a PC or console. They have built-in processors, but their display quality may be lower than tethered headsets due to the limitations of onboard hardware.

    • Smartphone Headsets: Simple VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard use a smartphone as the screen and processor. The visual quality depends on the smartphone’s capabilities, generally offering a more accessible but less immersive experience.

  2. Tracking Capabilities:

    • Outside-In Tracking: Some high-end headsets use external sensors around the room to track movement. This setup allows for precise tracking but requires a dedicated space.

    • Inside-Out Tracking: Standalone and some tethered headsets use built-in cameras and sensors for tracking. This system is more convenient and portable, though sometimes less accurate than outside-in systems.

  3. Connectivity:

    • Wired Headsets: Tethered headsets usually require cables to connect to their computing source, restricting movement but offering higher graphical fidelity.

    • Wireless Headsets: Standalone and smartphone headsets are wireless, offering greater freedom of movement but often at the expense of processing power and graphical quality.

  4. Intended Use:

    • Gaming and Entertainment: High-end tethered headsets ideal for immersive gaming experiences with detailed environments.

    • Educational and Professional: Standalone headsets are increasingly used for educational purposes, training simulations, and professional design work, balancing quality and portability.

    • Casual and Marketing: Smartphone VR headsets are great for casual experiences and marketing campaigns, offering an easy entry point for VR novices.

Learn how to design for virtual reality in our UX Design for Virtual Reality course.

How do VR headsets impact user experience in virtual environments?

VR headsets significantly impact user experience in virtual environments by providing immersive, interactive experiences that traditional screens cannot. They do this through:

  1. Immersion: VR headsets create a sense of presence in a virtual world. They achieve this by filling the user’s field of vision with the virtual environment, effectively isolating them from the physical world. This deep immersion enhances the user’s sense of reality within the virtual space, making experiences more engaging and memorable.

  2. Interactivity: Most VR headsets come with controllers or enable hand tracking, allowing users to interact naturally with the virtual environment. This interaction can range from simple actions like grabbing and manipulating virtual objects to more complex gestures. This level of interactivity fosters a deeper connection with the virtual environment and can improve learning, engagement, and enjoyment.

  3. Spatial Awareness: VR headsets track head and sometimes body movements, translating them into the virtual environment. This tracking gives users a natural way to explore and navigate the virtual space, enhancing their spatial awareness and making the experience more intuitive and lifelike.

  4. Personalization: Virtual environments can be tailored to individual users. VR headsets can adjust to different vision needs and incorporate user-specific content, making experiences more personal and relevant. This personalization can enhance comfort and satisfaction, creating a more positive user experience.

  5. Accessibility: VR headsets can make experiences accessible that might be impossible or impractical in the real world. This aspect is particularly significant in education, training, and entertainment, where VR can simulate environments and scenarios safely and cost-effectively.

However, designers must be aware of the challenges VR headsets pose, such as motion sickness, user acclimatization to VR environments, and hardware limitations. Ensuring comfort, preventing disorientation, and maintaining user safety are crucial considerations when designing for VR.

For more insights into how VR impacts user experience and design considerations, enroll in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

Can VR headsets be used for non-gaming purposes?

Yes, VR headsets are increasingly employed for various non-gaming applications, showcasing their versatility and potential in different sectors. Here are some examples:

  1. Education and Training: VR headsets revolutionize learning and training experiences by creating interactive, immersive educational environments. They enable students and professionals to practice complex skills, from surgical procedures to mechanical repairs, in a safe, controlled setting.

  2. Healthcare and Therapy:  Healthcare professionals use VR for patient rehabilitation, therapy, and mental health treatment. It aids in pain management and cognitive therapy and provides a controlled environment for exposure therapy for PTSD.

  3. Architectural Design and Real Estate: Architects and real estate agents use VR to visualize and showcase property designs and layouts. Clients can take virtual tours of buildings or landscapes, experiencing spaces before construction.

  4. Retail and Marketing: Retailers leverage VR for immersive marketing, allowing customers to experience products virtually, such as trying on clothes and previewing furniture in a home setting.

  5. Art and Cultural Experiences: Artists have explored VR as a medium for creating and exhibiting art. Museums and galleries use VR to offer virtual tours and interactive experiences, making art and culture more accessible.

  6. Corporate Training and Remote Work: VR is also transforming the workplace, used for training employees in scenarios that are too dangerous or expensive to replicate in real life. It also supports remote collaboration, enabling virtual meetings and workspaces.

  7. Scientific Research and Development: In fields like astronomy and molecular biology, VR headsets allow researchers to visualize and interact with complex data in three dimensions, enhancing understanding and discovery.

For more insights on the versatile applications of VR, watch Mel Slater’s insightful Master Class Webinar on How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.

What are common user pain points with VR headsets?

Common user pain points with VR headsets often stem from technological limitations and design challenges. Addressing these pain points is crucial for improving user experience. Here are the common pain points that designers should be aware of:

  1. Comfort and Ergonomics: Wearing a VR headset for extended periods can be uncomfortable. Users often report discomfort due to the weight of the headset, pressure on the face and nose, and heat buildup. Ergonomic design improvements are needed to enhance comfort.

  2. Motion Sickness: VR-induced motion sickness, or “VR sickness,” is a common issue caused by the disconnect between what users see and what their bodies feel. Reducing latency, improving frame rates, and designing environments that minimize sudden movements can help mitigate this.

  3. Limited Field of View (FOV): Many VR headsets have a restricted FOV, which can break the sense of immersion and cause discomfort. Expanding the FOV while maintaining image quality and performance is a significant challenge.

  4. Resolution and Visual Quality: The “screen door effect,” where users can see fine lines between pixels, detracts from the immersive experience. Higher-resolution displays are required to overcome this, but they demand more processing power.

  5. Wireless Connectivity: Tethered headsets can restrict movement and detract from the experience. While wireless options exist, they often face challenges with battery life, latency, and data transfer speeds.

  6. Interaction Limitations: Current control schemes in VR can be unintuitive or limited, affecting the ease of interaction. Developing more natural and diverse interaction methods, like advanced hand tracking, can improve this.

  7. Accessibility: VR headsets and experiences are not always designed with accessibility in mind, limiting their use for people with disabilities. Inclusive design is needed to make VR experiences accessible to a broader audience.

  8. Cost and Accessibility: The cost of high-quality VR headsets and the required computing power can be prohibitive for many users, limiting the technology’s accessibility.

  9. Software and Content Limitations: There’s a need for more diverse and high-quality VR content to attract and retain users.

As the field of VR matures, many of these issues will likely be mitigated, leading to more comfortable, immersive, and accessible VR experiences. Stay ahead of the VR industry and learn design principles and best practices in the UX Design for Virtual Reality course.

How does haptic feedback enhance VR experiences?

Haptic feedback significantly enhances VR experiences by adding a tactile dimension, making virtual interactions more realistic and immersive.

In this video, Prof Alan Dix explains how haptic feedback in digital interfaces makes them more intuitive and immersive for users:

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Haptic feedback is critical to creating fully-rounded VR experiences by engaging the sense of touch. Here’s how haptic feedback contributes to VR:

  1. Increased Immersion: Haptic feedback provides physical sensations that correspond to virtual activities. Feeling vibrations, resistance, or pressure when interacting with virtual objects adds a layer of realism, deepening the sense of immersion.

  2. Enhanced Interaction: It allows users to “feel” virtual objects and environments. This can range from simple vibrations indicating a touch or grab to more complex sensations mimicking textures, weight, and temperature, making interactions more intuitive and lifelike.

  3. Improved User Engagement: The added sensory input from haptic feedback makes VR experiences more engaging and enjoyable. It can transform passive viewing into an interactive and captivating experience.

  4. Feedback for Actions: Haptic feedback provides instant tactile responses to user actions, crucial for tasks requiring precision, like surgical simulations or mechanical training in VR.

  5. Navigation and Guidance: Subtle haptic cues can guide users through VR environments, enhancing navigational ease and reducing visual overload.

  6. Accessibility: For users with visual impairments, haptic feedback can be a valuable tool, offering a form of sensory input to interact with and understand the VR environment.

  7. Increased Learning and Retention: In educational VR applications, haptic feedback can reinforce learning by engaging multiple senses, aiding in memory retention and understanding of complex concepts.

  8. Emotional Response: Physical sensations can elicit emotional responses, making experiences more memorable. For instance, feeling a heartbeat or a gust of wind in a VR story can intensify the emotional impact.

Literature on VR Headsets

Here’s the entire UX literature on VR Headsets by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about VR Headsets

Take a deep dive into VR Headsets with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

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