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Imagine playing a lagging Call of Duty run-through. Your stream is buffering and stopping, not to mention you’re probably losing. That’s bad — now imagine if that happened in virtual reality. It’s probably not only borderline unplayable, but it’s actually giving you motion sickness. VR has proven to be a transformational technology. It has the potential to disrupt the media, gaming, and any number of other industries. Yet, it also has the potential to be undone by inadequate supporting technology like your internet speed.
VR technologies are growing at a rapid rate. Tech adviser Digi-Capital predicts that the VR industry will be valued at $25 billion by 2021. Deloitte even projected that the industry earned just over $1 billion last year. These are big numbers for an industry in its infancy. Gaming, video, and specifically live streaming, makes VR a fascinating opportunity to all kinds of content providers. Facebook, YouTube, and even the NBA have already started rolling out VR streaming options. They’re providing sports, concerts, and news in 360 degrees – and made 2016 the year that VR live and non-live streams became a viable option for early adopters.
With streaming the new mandate for all content, VR will have to account for the Internet speeds of everyday consumers and find novel ways to deal with a telecom industry that is growing at its own pace. Here are five issues that must be figured out before VR can take off
Issue #1: Figure out a way to stream high definition video to both eyes
Each VR stream must be duplicated twice to stream individually to both eyes. Unsurprisingly, dual streams require a lot of bandwidth. Charles Cheevers, CTO of Telecom Company ARRIS, said last year that a 720p VR video stream takes at least a 50 Mbps connection. The problem is that the majority of US internet users just don’t have that kind of speed. While major cities can keep up, the vast majority of the country still lags far behind.
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Akamai’s 2015 State of the Internet report found that the average US household had an average of 12.6 Mbps. That’s even at the higher end of the spectrum. The report went on to say that as many as 80 percent of US households’ Internet connection don’t even rise above 8 Mbps. Such a disparity has to do with the lack of middle ground in connection speeds. Akamai’s report found that higher speeds in major cities made up for an average increase of a full four Mbps.
Issue #2: Learn to future proof video for upcoming 4K streams
Netflix’s non-VR 4K streams currently require a connection of at least 25 Mbps. This means most Netflix users in the US will not stream in 4K anytime soon, and 4K VR is essentially inconceivable.
According to Cheevers, VR will require a connection 33x higher than Netflix’s mandate. He reported that a VR video stream in 4K resolution will need a 500Mbps connection to run fluidly. With the first 4K VR headset announced last year, the 4K future looks to be a lot closer than we think.
Issue #3: Solve slow connections to prevent motion sickness
Quality VR requires users to have a speedy Internet connection. US military tests in the 90s showed that low quality video was a primary offender for why people get motion sickness when using VR headsets. Hardware manufacturers have done a great job in making sure VR kits are less likely to cause motion sickness. However, they can still get bogged down by latency and bandwidth issues they have little power over.
Issue #4: Devise a way to effectively compress video
Facebook has been leading the charge on making VR an everyday reality. Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild started by buying Occulus over two years ago. The company then quickly moved to make the technology sound. Using encoding techniques like pyramid geometry, Facebook has been able to reduce VR and 360 video file sizes by up to 80 percent.
Pyramid geometry breaks down the multitude of viewer angles seen from a VR headset and breaks down five different streams. This allows users to experience a fluid 360 degree video. The compression means it takes less space to store video in the cloud and stream to your device. However, compression is only half the battle. Facebook is now working to establish artificial intelligence that can provide the best possible stream for every use case. It’s still early days but Facebook is making big gains.
Issue #5: Decide to realistically meet consumers’ demands
A major issue facing VR technology is the lack of a killer app. According to a 2016 Vicon study, 28 percent of respondents feel that high quality content will be key for the spread of VR. Unfortunately, developers are currently developing for first-gen hardware and struggling with a world that is still playing catch up in some respect.
In order for VR to work as a platform, consumers will need faster Internet speeds. Of course, if the content isn’t there the masses can’t fully adopt, and while there is ample Internet backbone capacity, subscriber access bandwidth limitations threaten to spoil the party. By creating a situation where consumer interest is simply not strong enough, content development cannot be justified in the first place.
This is a classic Internet chicken and egg scenario, and developers will be required to meet the technology where it’s at in order to create a groundswell for consumer enthusiasm. If they do, technology will follow and VR could be a major force in driving growth of the Internet infrastructure of America.
Mattias Fridström is chief evangelist for Telia Carrier, a global wholesale provider of network infrastructure and services.
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