Virtual Worlds vs Virtual Reality

What is the difference between a virtual world, and virtual reality?

A virtual world is a fake place you can visit. Virtual reality is an immersive way of experiencing virtual worlds.

The difference between virtual worlds vs virtual reality is kind of like the difference between a web page and colour monitors. A virtual world, like a web page, is a container of content. A VR headset, like a colour monitor, is a way of looking at content.

Can you see this webpage in colour? Odds are, you can. Can you see any of the trivial virtual worlds on this website in virtual reality? Odds are, you can’t. At least, as I’m writing this. It’s March 2016 – VR headsets began shipping on Monday of this week – so the odds you’re viewing anything in VR are pretty low. Especially here on the web. As far as viewing in colour? The odds are beyond pretty high.

Do you need virtual reality to experience a virtual world?
Screenshot of Minecraft - primitive virtual worlds.
The kids and I in swimsuits in Minecraft

Absolutely not! One of my favourite virtual worlds is my Realm in Minecraft. And I’ve never used virtual reality to experience it. I understand that any day now, Minecraft will be compatible with the new “Rift” VR headsets that started shipping this week. But, for the years since Minecraft was first unleashed on the world – people have experienced its virtual worlds through a monitor. (And almost always a colour monitor, I’d wager…)

The very simplest “virtual world” would be a 360-degree panoramic photograph. Everywhere you look, is a part of the world. For kicks, here’s a virtual world that’s almost that simple – it’s a 360-degree panoramic photo, with a 3d “model” plunked in the middle.

If you drag your mouse over that, your perspective will change – giving you similar control to if you were wearing a VR headset and looking all around the scene. It’s so simplistic, it’s bizarre – the model doesn’t even have the ability to sit on the “ground”.

(A more fun, but ultra-stripped-down virtual world can be found in my Virtual Silver Maple Keys demo.)

Thanks to a nascent technology called WebVR, and the WebVR boilerplate, the barrier between virtual worlds, virtual reality, and regular monitors is breaking down even before it even gets started. Using WebVR, we will be able to deploy virtual worlds on the web. Those virtual worlds will be accessible to anyone with a web enabled device. Whether it’s a computer or a phone. And whether using a flat screen or VR goggles.

So, to paraphrase that to reflect the “virtual worlds vs virtual reality” theme of this post – with WebVR, you’ll be able to experience virtual worlds on the web with or without virtual reality hardware.


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Author: Pete

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