How Digital Infrastructure Is Holding VR Back

VR relies heavily on digital distribution, is this becoming a problem as VR tries to go mainstream?

In today’s connected world, many of us are online 24/7. The realm of virtual reality (VR) much of the features that the technology relies on require and active internet connection to work. Some analysts think this dependence is holding VR back, but perhaps its the flaws in the communications infrastructure that are letting down modern VR.

With much of the distribution for VR being exclusively digital, relying on platforms such as Steam VR, Viveport or the Oculus Store, having fast, stable internet is essential for VR users. Especially when engaging in activities such as livestreaming. Yet many still lack the speed and stability of connection to truly support VR.

In February of this year, it was reported that the UK Government were very frustrated at the pace of deployment for ultrafast fibre broadband by BT Openreach. Despite aspirations to get 10 million Fibre-to-the-premises lines out, BT Openreach has only sold plans for 2 million. This leaves the majority of the UK still working on ADSL connections, which can have wildly different speeds depending on a host of factors. To make matters worse, roughly 5% of the UK still uses 56K dial-up for internet access.

Across the pond in the USA, things look even bleaker. Many areas are effectively held captive by one internet service provider (ISP), who can pretty much charge whatever price they like and provide whatever level of service they feel like, since they are the only game in town. One of the biggest ISPs, Comcast, has been twice awarded the ‘Worst company in America’ moniker thanks to reports of terrible customer service, pricing and assorted regulatory breeches.

This situation is compounded in the USA by strict data caps on downloads, which in some cases mean that users are cut off from all internet access once they exceed this, all too easy to do when downloading a VR title, since the demands of VR often mean large file downloads.

All this means that non-commercial customers are put off from VR due to the lack of fast, stable data connections, and fear of going over the data cap. This can cut off a large portion of the potential audience, which as the VR industry seeks to enter the mainstream, is certainly a concern.

Is there a solution? It is certainly true that companies that rely of their customers having fast, reliable access to the internet need to apply pressure to governments and regulators, but it might also be worth reconsidering the heavy reliance on digital distribution.

It could be noted that the Nintendo Switch has done phenomenally well, despite being primarily reliant on physical distribution, on a media that the industry had mostly declared to be dead (cartridge). Perhaps the VR industry should take note of this, and the limitations of current internet infrastructure and give thought towards providing a physical media option.

Of course, it’s possible that an end-run around the current internet gatekeepers will be performed with the introduction of 5G cellular networks, though only time will tell.

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