The Role of Hardware in VR Research & Development

May 26, 2020

Matthias Pusch, Daniel Tinkham, Sado Rabaudi, Felix Rudert

A summary from our 20 years of experience configuring VR Labs for R&D:

  • What are the main types of VR labs
  • Popular hardware for basic and advanced VR lab setups
  • A custom VR Lab Configuration Tool - link to exclusive Beta to try now!

Please be sure to check out our upcoming Webinar on this topic, register HERE.


Over the last 20 years, WorldViz has supplied hundreds of universities, corporations and government organizations with state-of-the-art VR labs utilizing the latest VR hardware and peripherals. With the advent of consumer priced VR headsets, immersive technology has become even more accessible and widespread. Many people don’t know where to start when building a VR lab, let alone the vast array of hardware tools available to professional and academic users and how they work together to achieve incredible results.

This article will provide a high level view of the role of hardware in VR research and development by exploring the main functional use case areas we have seen work time and again in the academic VR space. From there we’ll dive into some of the specific combinations of hardware that are commonly used in these different areas to achieve research and program goals. 

Research versus Experiential Labs

The broadest functional categories we see for academic users are ‘Research versus Experiential’ lab set-ups. Research-focused labs emphasize data collection and running specific experiments with individuals or small groups of users. Experiential labs focus on leveraging virtual reality’s core capabilities as a communication tool to create unique learning and presentation spaces where students and faculty can collaborate in interactive virtual environments.

Below we will take a look at a few examples of deployments of both of these types of labs to see how this works in practice. One thing to keep in mind is that many of these technologies are modular and can be scaled up or down according to a lab’s need and their available technology budget and that there is often overlap between the two categories so a research set-up can also function as a presentation space and vice versa.

VR Lab Configurator Tool - Beta Review

As a bonus to our VR newsletter subscribers we are also inviting you to an exclusive beta version of our “VR Lab Configurator” - an interactive website where you can build your dream VR lab by adding various components and generating a rough order of magnitude for the system cost.

WorldViz Webinar

WorldViz will host a webinar about this topic on May 28, 9 AM Pacific Standard Time. It will be possible for participants to ask questions, and we will answer as many of those as possible as part of the webinar, and all of them after the webinar. We will make a recording available after the webinar to all participants. You can sing up here.

Common Lab Build Outs

Research-Focused Labs

A) Entry Level: A consumer system with optional peripheral data recorders for sophisticated science on a budget.

This approach is often best for labs just starting out in VR research. The general approach is to start with an entry level VR headset and computer, and then add additional pieces as needed to create a comprehensive data collection suite. VR systems on their own are sophisticated data collection tools - you can get detailed information on the user's position and orientation, basic gaze direction, objects of interest and any interaction they perform within a VR scene with just an Oculus Rift S system.

From there, many researchers choose to add eye-tracking capabilities, biophysiological data recording and VR data gloves to get even more insight into a user's behavior and performance.

B) The high end VR ‘walking’ lab for measuring human performance and reactions

This setup is often driven by researchers who want to control as many aspects of participant’s input and reactions as possible with the highest data quality possible. They typically utilize a scientific-grade motion tracking system and backpack-based PCs to enable natural navigation of a large virtual space with either single or multiple VR participants. This type of system can sometimes leverage more traditional motion capture techniques as well to get detailed kinematic data on participants or to create sophisticated avatar animations based off of real human actors to create complex VR scenarios (such as training or educational scenes).

The trade offs of these systems are often: 

  1. A large lab space is typically required to fully realize navigation through a large virtual space or to accommodate multiple participants simultaneously.
  2. Data quality needed often requires professional grade components which are more expensive than consumer tech and may not work with available budgets.

C) Unique displays for specialized research

This research area can be fairly straightforward or exotic depending on the researchers requirements (such as accommodating an MRI machine). Here are some examples of set-ups we’ve encountered:

  • Projection VR to deliver VR experiences for populations unable to wear fully immersive VR headsets or for researchers who need access to a participants whole head in order to perform brain scanning during a simulated activity (e.g. EEG, TMS Coil)
  • Collins Coalescence Augmented Reality system for studying real world object interaction (i.e. cell phones)
  • Autostereoscopic displays, highest resolution displays / tiled displays, displays for MRI research

In such individual setups, researchers use advanced display options for specific research goals, often around human perception and cognitive processing. Such advanced displays are often used in combination with multimodal integrations like haptics, sound and scent distribution systems.

Experiential-focused Labs

D) Connecting multiple consumer-based VR systems for presentations and learning

We often see requirements where a university or lab wants to be able to connect multiple students in an immersive VR environment for delivering education content or giving immersive presentations on specific projects or topics. In this scenario, each student or participant needs to be equipped with their own VR system so selecting a series of economical consumer-based systems is often the best approach.

Beyond the individual student use, programs are often seeking to test concepts on the effectiveness of collaboration and learning in VR, and how VR can be used to augment remote education.

Typical proposals for such a requirement include ‘classroom style’ setups of VR systems (a VR ready desktop and VR headset for each station), or modular VR stations utilizing laptops. Universities will sometimes leverage the WorldViz VizBox as a portable modular solution which can be shipped or transported off-site facilitating remote collaboration. All of these systems are often completely configured with off-the-shelf consumer VR components.

E) Leveraging large scale displays for experiencing VR content with multiple participants

For the use case of utilizing VR to experience immersion together as a group, one or multi-sided projection setups have proven to be useful. The group can look at a wall of the room that’s been outfitted with a 3D projector and motion tracking system to experience interactive VR content collaboratively. The projectors are highly modular and additional projectors and tracking cameras can be added to increase the size of the projected image most typically with two projectors creating a single blended image across the corner of a room to create a 180 degree field of view, or even be fully wrapped into a projection system that covers all walls of the room. The result is a large scale customized display perfect for large group presentations.

Projection VR systems are often combined with VR headset users to give an audience insight into their first person experience in VR. Since audience members typically can’t see what is happening in a simulation, a projection system enables a group to follow along visually with headset based users or even participate as their own separate tracked participant.

A more advanced variation of this system will leverage one or multiple fully motion tracked performers who are able to see their own live performance in the VR projection environment in real time, while acting it out.

F) The WOW-Factor

Last not least, the use case can simply be to impress VIP visitors. Even for a research lab, it can be good to have an efficient way of communicating the VR research to visitors and stakeholders.

VR projection walls or multiple monitor setups can do that very efficiently and are often used for that purpose.

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