What Is Virtual reality?

In the first Virtual Reality Travel Agency Pop Up Thinglab a 6 year old asked me “What is Virtual Reality” 

Reality itself is difficult enough to define let alone virtual reality!

The best way to understand reality and virtual reality is to experience it - you have to see it to believe it. 
Thinglab is all about experience so we have virtual reality viewers to experience and understand what virtual reality is and have opportunities to make virtual reality and virtual reality viewers.

However, for those seeking explanations and definitions, here goes ….
Einstein once said "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”

So we got children to explain it to us

"In virtual reality you can look around as if you are there” 

"Virtual reality projects into your eyes as if you are there”  

For those who used to be children:
“Virtual” and “reality” have opposite  meanings - making “virtual reality” a contradiction in terms but Nasa offers a way out of the contradiction with a good working explanation and definition of  “virtual reality”
 Here is what NASA says about virtual reality:

Many people take "virtual" to mean fake or unreal, and "reality" to refer to the real world. This results in an oxymoron. The actual definition of virtual, however, is "to have the effect of being such without actually being such". The definition of "reality" is "the property of being real", and one of the definitions of "real" is "to have concrete existence". Using these definitions "virtual reality" means "to have the effect of concrete existence without actually having concrete existence", which is exactly the effect achieved in a good virtual reality system.

“Virtual reality is the use of computer technology to create the effect of an interactive three-dimensional world in which the objects have a sense of spatial presence.”  ~ NASA

The basic idea is to present the correct cues to your perceptual and cognitive system so that your brain interprets those cues as objects "out there" in the three-dimensional world. These cues have been surprisingly simple to provide using computer graphics: simply render a three-dimensional object (in stereo) from a point of view which matches the positions of your eyes as you move about. If the objects in the environment interact with you then the effect of spatial presence is greatly heightened.

The main point of virtual reality, and the primary difference between conventional three-dimensional computer graphics and virtual reality is that in virtual reality you are working with things as opposed to pictures of things.

The crucial thing in virtual reality is interactive first person perspective - the sensations (images, sounds, smells, touch etc) presented to you are linked to your actions … for example as you move your head around and look in all directions then the images presented to your eyes change as if you are looking at a scene in all directions.

Tracking your movements and actions and mapping them to presentations to your senses is crucial in virtual reality and for this virtual reality equipment must have positional tracking. If using smartphone based VR headsets like Google cardboard for example - make sure the phone has a gyroscope! 

The quality of virtual reality improves as the tracking and connection with your senses and actions improves. Virtual reality isn;t just about vision though ... ultimately, fully tracked presentation to all your senses may be possible and result in virtual reality so immersive that it is indistinguishable from “reality” … more on this at a later time - let's not get into philosophy just yet.