Passive VR – what is “passive virtual reality”?

Today, I stumbled on the term “passive VR” in an article I was reading about VR headsets at different price points.

(That’s a pretty good article about the broad range of VR headsets available in early 2016)

Google Cardboard - Passive VR on the cheap.
Google Cardboard – Passive VR on the cheap.

The article was talking about Google Cardboard, which is essentially a cardboard phone-holder and lens-holder that a specific app can use to give the simplest virtual reality experience. Though, because there is no way to control the experience, it is a one-way interface. From the article:

Google’s own Cardboard app has some neat offerings, including a “urban hike” through some of the world’s most famous landmarks. It’s not the same thing as physically being at the Eiffel Tower, but you can still look up in amazement.

In that sense, Google Cardboard is passive VR. You’re mostly an observer, albeit with a larger field of vision than say, a movie.

The opposite of passive VR isn’t active VR – it’s interactive VR.

Or, as some people would claim, virtual reality is, by its nature, interactive. For example, Wikipedia‘s definition of virtual reality states:

Virtual reality or virtual realities (VR), which can be referred to as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated reality, replicates an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or an imagined world, allowing the user to interact in that world.

So really, VR is VR. And “passive VR” is really just a 3D full-wraparound movie. You can’t interact with it. You can just watch. And while you can turn your head, to look around, or up – you’re still just watching a movie. That’s what makes it “passive”.

I was glad to stumble upon the term “passive VR”. There’s all this talk lately of VR cameras – really just cameras that take a full, spherical, wrap-around picture. Given that reality is interactive, I’ve always assumed virtual reality should be interactive as well. So, I barely consider those uber-panoramic photos to even be virtual reality. “Passive VR” makes good sense.

Anyway, I Googled “passive VR”, just to get a grip on how widespread the term is. And that article I posted above, where I first saw the term, came up #4. So, like VR itself, the term “passive VR” has a way to go before it hits the mainstream.

Put a joystick on that thing

VR Goggles with an interface to give the user control.
VR Goggles with controls for interactivity

One interesting article that came up containing the term “passive VR” is this little gem of an abstract on the US National Library of Science Website:

Interactive and passive virtual reality distraction: effects on presence and pain intensity.

Effects on pain intensity? Where are they going with this?

Turns out, according to this research, that if you want to distract yourself from actual pain, you’re best off using REAL, interactive virtual reality. The passive VR just doesn’t provide enough of a distraction.

After the VR cold-pressor trial, each subject provided ratings of pain intensity and rated the degree to which they had felt “present” in the virtual environment. Results showed that most of the participants who experienced the interactive VR distraction reported less pain intensity relative to the no-VR trial. However, in the passive VR condition, only 5.9% of participants showed a decreased level of pain intensity relative to the no-VR trial. Also, the amount of presence reported was significantly higher during the interactive VR distraction and correlated negatively with pain intensity scores.

Which seems easy to believe, but interesting. It’s easy to believe that a virtual world you cannot interact with would simply not be as immersive as a virtual world you could interact with. And this study seems to validate that idea.

If you really really want to be distracted from real reality, passive VR isn’t going to do a very good job, compared to interactive VR.

Anyway, it’s nice to have a term – passive VR – to pull out when discussing whether or not a 360-degree video actually even counts as virtual reality…

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Author: Pete

Editor-in-Chief, Lead Software Developer and Artistic Director @

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