How Does Virtual Reality Work?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how virtual reality works and the fundamentals for creating an effective VR experience.

[Featured Image] A professor stands in front of a classroom holding a VR headset so he can explain to students how virtual reality works.

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive 3D world generated by computers that users experience through headsets, wearable technology, movement sensors, and 360-degree screens. Virtual reality provides experiences in non-immersive environments like 360-degree screens and immersive environments that users experience through headsets and wearables to interact in a realistic digital world.

While not a brand-new technology, VR is more accessible to consumers than before, thanks to the creation of VR devices for use within homes and other small spaces in the 2010s. This boom in VR has led to its implementation in more industries than just gaming, including education, training, exercise, and health care. With its increasing popularity, VR poses many questions for future research.

How does virtual reality work, and what are its implications for AI? This article explores these questions, as well as VR’s applications in various industries and how you can develop a VR experience.

How does virtual reality work?

VR overrides its user’s senses through a feedback loop of tracking sensors and stimulation produced by VR hardware, software, and the user’s relationship to the physical world. Three things make up VR systems:

  • Hardware

  • Software

  • Human perception

Let’s examine how each aspect of a VR system produces a virtual reality experience.


The hardware of a VR system transmits a stimulus to the physical world so that the user’s eyes and ears can convert it into a neural impulse. The goal is to convince the brain that the virtual world is the physical world and that the aural and visual displays are natural stimulation.

Three main hardware components make up a VR system:

  • Displays: Devices that output stimuli for various sense organs. These could be screens for the eyes, speakers or headphones for the ears, or haptic feedback for the sense of touch.

  • Sensors are devices that take input signals from the physical world. They detect the orientation of the various sense organs. Other sensors include a digital camera to track the eyes, ears, hands, and other body movements. Additionally, infrared cameras sense depth through a project of infrared light not visible to the human eye.

  • Computers: Devices that take in the input sensors and display the output stimuli to run the virtual world generator (VWG). These computers can range from a desktop computer run to the headset with wires or something as simple as a smartphone that drops into the headset. Special computing components like graphics processing units (GPUs) and display interface chips help the VR system perform.


Software for VR works through the inputs it receives from hardware in the physical world, supplying these to the VWG to constantly render the stimulation to make the VR. The software creates the perception of the real world versus the VR world, using recorded images, computer-generated images (CGI), or a combination of both.

Additionally, software attempts to match the user's motion in the physical world to their motion in the virtual world, ensuring that the viewpoints of objects in the world line up. Software dictates what happens when a user wants to move outside of the matched motion from the sensors. Additional hardware, like a controller, allows users to move. The software accounts for physics by applying various algorithms to similar physics in the physical world, deciding how simple or complex a VR world should be.

When creating VR, a software development kit (SDK) gives a basic set of rules from a hardware vendor on how to build a VWG from scratch that includes all of their physics, audio, and movement. Some companies produce their VWG that developers can use as a starting point with implemented rules and safety.

Human perception

VR must consider the effects of artificial stimuli on the human senses. Each human sense has a stimulus, receptor, and organs that perceive the physical world. VR engineers stimuli that act on human neurological pathways similar to how senses in the physical world operate. Sometimes your brain reacts poorly to the stimuli, creating a fusion of senses that causes fatigue, headaches, nausea, or an inability to interpret the experience as “real.”

The adaptation of human sense perception can cause VR developers to forget what VR does to the senses of someone who has never interacted with it before. Although you slowly become comfortable with VR, a developer who always interacts with it may make design flaws they do not notice. An understanding of the effects of VR on human perception must be fully understood so that VR stimulates what it’s supposed to while limiting side effects.

How does AI work with VR?

AI works with VR to help create interactive avatars that can hold conversations through natural language processing. This function of AI could aid training modules in high-skill workplaces by giving you an immersive, hands-on experience of the workplace in a safe environment. AI development tools can help streamline the creation of VR worlds as well as create a better user experience.

How to develop an effective virtual reality experience

Focus on human physiology and perception to develop an effective virtual reality experience. A range of experiences can help inform this process, including video games, cinema, broadcasting, visualization, and engineering. Let’s examine some guiding principles for effective VR:

  1. Begin development looking to maximize comfort, reduce eye strain, and create an immersive experience.

  2. Create virtual worlds with realistic scales, objects in full 3D, and texture from all angles, and ensure all geometric models render correctly. 

  3. Ensure that the view from the left and right eyes is the same, with the only difference being the angle of each object, color, or texture.

  4. Optimize rendering and frame rate per your given hardware requirements to maintain a consistent framerate and minimize latency.

  5. Ensure audio tracking and localization from speaker systems work with headphones.

  6. Take breaks while designing a VR world to avoid VR sickness.

  7. Learn how to spot flaws when designing VR systems through perceptual training.

Getting started with Coursera

Ready to take your VR development to the next level? Try the Virtual Reality Specialization from the University of London on Coursera. In this specialization, discover the fundamentals of VR, how to interact with VR worlds and technologies, how to create 3D graphics, and how to combine it to create your own virtual reality experience.

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