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How Do VR Headsets Work Without An Action Button?

Google Cardboard was one of the first ridiculously cheap ways for people to experience virtual reality. It’s cardboard material might raise questions as to its durability and long term use but there is no denying that the device made VR apps more accessible for everyone. Since then, many other VR headsets made by smaller manufacturers to big names like Samsung have entered the market. With some of these other headsets, you might notice a small design and feature difference i.e., some headsets do not have an action button. This might raise the question as to how you will ‘navigate’ a VR app if your headset doesn’t have an action button which, frankly, quite a few don’t. You might even wonder if what you’re getting is a substandard device. Here’s how a VR headset without an action button works and the implications of buying one.

For those who don’t know what the action button on Google Cardboard does, it’s how you interact with a VR app when you’re phone is inserted inside the headset. The button lets you ‘click’ or ‘tap’ elements in the app without having to remove your phone from the headset. It’s a magnetic button located at the side (image courtesy Google Developers) which, when you spin, will send a signal to your phone.


In the absence of this button, how does a user interact with a VR headset? The solution resides with the VR app that you use. VR apps use ‘head movement focus’ to allow the user to interact with elements inside a VR app. An element that a user can interact with is highlighted in the UI and when the user focuses on it, usually with a sniper-like cross-hair cursor that appears on the screen, the app records it as input. A user must focus on the spot for a short interval for it to register as input. Take for example the following screen from the iOS game Zombie Shooter VR.

Notice the cross-hair that is aimed at the circle inside the door. When the circle completes, the door opens. The user must remain focused on this spot until the circle is complete for the app to register it as an input.


The game, as its name implies, is a shooting game. To play it, the user must focus on their target. The app simulates walking and gunshots on its own.

What this means is that even if your VR headset doesn’t have an action button, it will still function perfectly well. There will be some exceptions though. For apps that don’t support head focus control, you are in for a lesser experience. It is possible that you simply cannot use the app with your VR headset. The good news is that apps like that are rare to come by. Most will let you focus and send input with your head movements since the app makers will want people to use their app regardless of how expensive or cheap their VR headset is. All in all, if your headset doesn’t have an action button, you aren’t missing out on too much.

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