2016 was a great year for most companies involved in augmented and virtual reality, and a significant percentage of consumers showed growing interests in the emerging technologies. This year is set to build upon last-year’s groundwork to create the most immersive virtual reality experiences yet. But there are still many things holding back its use outside of showrooms and proof of concepts, the most glaring problem being our network’s capacity.
Current virtual reality applications are little more than 360º video/panoramas. Although it can be incredibly detailed, low quality 360º video requires at least a 30Mbps connection, with HD quality streams easily surpassing 100 Mbps, and retina quality(4k+) almost reaching Gbps territory.
2017: The year of localized Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality
The bandwidth and low-latency requirements for these video-heavy technologies are at a level not reached by any other current technology and our current networks are exceedingly ill-equipped to handle even HD-quality VR streams, let alone 4k+ immersive virtual reality.
This means that for the most part in 2017, Immersive HD/4K+ VR experiences will be tied down geographically to the hardware, as network operators gradually upgrade to handle the immense bandwidth/ low-latency requirements.
The limiting factors to a successful VR/AR deployment are:
- Bandwidth: Video intensive technologies require the most bandwidth, and out of all the video-related applications, VR/AR are the most demanding. Depending on the amount of bandwidth available, VR can be immersive and life-like, or pixelated and unusable
- Latency: The most important factor in immersive experiences. VR/AR require single digit millisecond latency(>5ms to be exact) for humans to not notice the delay. If latency is unstable or too high the jitteriness can lead to nausea and not to mention ruin the overall immersiveness
- Compute: Virtual reality is a computationally intense application, and pushing computing to a server farm is not an option latency will allow. This means placing capable computing appliances as close to the device as possible, at the edge our networks.
- Storage: Video takes up a significant amount of space to store, and VR 360º videos take up many time more. Augmented reality needs to store and process video feeds on the-fly and this means more storage will be needed at the network edge.
All of this means that for the most part in 2017, VR deployments will be geographically limited to the equipment site (largely for low-latency reasons) while we wait for mobile carriers and ISPs to update their network infrastructure.
The Imminent Solution: 5G & the Telecom Infra Project(TIP)
The small cell architecture in 5G, and it’s move towards mobile edge computing(MEC) is the perfect environment for VR applications. Though still very much in it’s infancy, mobile carriers claim that by the year 2020 we should be seeing 5G out in the market.
Very much related is the Telecom Infra Project, which aims to improve infrastructure from the core, across the backbone all the way to the network edge . Facebook, one of the companies on the forefront of VR (after having bought industry leader – oculus) realized the need for improved infrastructure to handle these new technologies and was instrumental in spearheading the movement.
Virtual reality could be the beginning of the end for traditional Brick & Mortar stores
While VR may never truly replicate physical analysis of a product, Immersive and detailed VR stores & products can greatly improve Ecommerce conversion rates from the paltry 4-5% closer to the ~40% brick & mortar stores reap benefits from. Combine this with the lower prices from not having to maintain a physical location/employees and suddenly the future outlook for traditional stores looks bleak.
Currently, creating a VR version of a product is quite expensive, with E-commerce giant Alibaba estimating it to cost around 50$ to craft one of its VR products. Though trough time, optimizations and mass adoption rates could easily make that figure fall as low as 1$ per product.
VR/AR are here to stay. The technology will quickly mature as companies explore new ways to utilize the technology and improve revenue streams (especially in marketing/retail). The next-generation of network telecom infrastructure will lower the cost entry-barrier and widespread adoption will shortly follow. Mobile edge computing will bring wireless augmented reality to the masses and change life significantly.