VR vs. Streaming & Network Infrastructure

VR is a demanding technology on all fronts, taking consumer data consumption to new highs.

This week’s VR vs. won’t be brought to you by VRFocus’ social guru Kevin Eva, as he’s enjoying a well earned week off. Instead you got me, and I want to talk about virtual reality (VR) data consumption, streaming and network infrastructure (exciting stuff I know), as it plays a fundamental role in the growth of VR – and other immersive tech. The rise of the internet, then smartphones, tablets and IoT devices means that more data than ever is being wirelessly thrown about with abandon, with smartphone-based and standalone VR headsets demanding even more as developers create ever larger virtual worlds, and 360-degree videos become longer and better quality. But for VR to be truly immersive it needs to be seamless, there can’t be loading times or buffering midway through, so do network operators and broadband providers need to be in on the VR conversation? 

First let’s discuss consumer consumption. At present the majority of VR content tends to be videogames. And whether we’re talking about mobile or PC/console-based VR, generally that content is downloaded, saved, then played whenever. But as more and more developers start to bring out multiplayer titles – this wasn’t the best strategy in the early days due to customer numbers – and social VR gains more traction, demand for smooth wireless VR becomes a necessity. Then there’s 360-degree video, which most users will stream rather than download through apps such a YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Littlstar and more.

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While it might not yet be commonplace to see someone in a park or on the train wearing a headset, the biggest portion of VR devices is in the mobile market, with Samsung Gear VR leading the way and Google Daydream starting to make progress. Over the course of 2017/18, manufacturers are going to be concentrating on even more wireless head-mounted displays (HMDs), with standalone units coming into the fold. Headsets like the Pico Goblin are going to be a popular choice for the casual user – at least that’s what some of the major companies are betting on – as Google, HTC and Lenovo will be bringing out a standalone device this year, and Oculus has made some murmurs about one for 2018 as well.

However VR isn’t some little IoT device sending tiny data packets. Whether it’s a smartphone with a QHD screen or a standalone device that has duel HD screens, as the quality needs to be decent due to the proximity to a users eye – screendoor effect isn’t so much of an issue as it previously was – that amount of data is massive and will only continue to grow exponentially as user number increase.

A new report from Juniper Research on VR forecasts that wireless headsets data consumption will grow by over 650 percent over the next 4 years, from nearly 2,800PB (Petabytes) in 2017 to over 21,000PB in 2021, placing significant additional strain on both wired and wireless networks.

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Is this an issue? Well at the moment in terms of VR, no it’s not. By 2021, the data demand of each VR device is expected to exceed that of 4K, according to Juniper. Nowadays it’s second nature to just instantly jump online wherever you are and get the information you need, becoming frustrated when you’re in some 4G deadzone, or there’s no WiFi hotspots anywhere near you. That infrastructure has built up over time as needed because network operators are used to working with phone manufacturers, creating a symbiotic relationship. VR doesn’t have that and so network operators and broadband providers need to be brought into the VR standards conversation, like the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) consortium’s CM-VR group, or the Video Electronics Standards Association’s (VESA) Special Interest Group (SIG).

While minimum frame rate and resolution will increase demand, work is being done on reducing that workload as well. Foveated rendering for example, this reduces the processing power required for VR experiences, only fully rendering where a user is looking while the rest of the scene is significantly lower. Or how about Oculus’ Asynchronous Spacewarp which works by extrapolating frames so that the frames per second (FPS) can drop down to 45.

We all want VR to be this wonderful, untethered technology that can transport us across this world and into even more amazing places. To do that, not only do the headsets need to improve but also the core tech that is fundamental to all of it connecting and communicating. So bring on 10G.

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