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Virtual Reality: The next big thing in content consumption

The explosion of video consumption and the different ways that people now view content has caused internet traffic to grow exponentially. Think phones are a big part of our digital life. Virtual and augmented reality will be even bigger; a key player in the tech industry. It’s the next big thing in content consumption that will be used in all manner of activities, not just games.

“It’s going to be huge... It has the opportunity to eclipse the smartphone market,” said Clive Downie, chief marketing officer of Unity Technologies, whose software is used to build thousands of games on phones, personal computers and game consoles. “VR and AR will be the next in a series of technologies - electricity, radio, movies, TV, smartphones - that profoundly changes everything we do,” he said.

Virtual reality presents a computer-generated 3D world to people wearing special goggles that track head motion to offer an immersive artificial realm. Augmented reality is related, but adds a virtual layer atop a view of the real world. Both require you to buy high powered, expensive computing equipment and burden your head with awkward gear, but computing giants like Google, Facebook, Samsung and Microsoft are scrambling to improve the technology so they’ll be at the center of the next stage of digital living.

What makes the development of virtual reality worthwhile?  The potential entertainment value is clear. Immersive films and video games are good examples. The entertainment industry is, after all, a multi-billion dollar one and consumers are always keen for novelty. VR has many more applications which include architecture, sports, medicine, art and entertainment.

Moreover, virtual reality can lead to new and exciting discoveries in these areas with the capacity to impact our day-to-day lives. Wherever it’s too dangerous, expensive or impractical to do something in reality, virtual reality is the answer. From trainee fighter pilots to medical applications as trainee surgeons, virtual reality allows us to take virtual risks in order to gain real world experience. As the cost of virtual reality goes down and becomes more mainstream, you can expect more serious uses, such as education or productivity applications to emerge. Virtual and augmented reality could change the way we interface with our digital technologies, continuing the trend of humanizing technology.

When it first started, initial attempts at VR failed to take off, with the Virtual Boy headset by Nintendo, for example, discontinued after one year following an influx of customer complaints. However, where Virtual Boy failed, many more are now gaining momentum. In fact, a report by CCS Insight predicts that augmented and VR hardware will become a $4 billion market by 2018, increasing from 2.2 million shipments to 20 million in the next three years.

Understandably, VR is a concept that many people are extremely excited about, and when VR is done right, it can create incredible results. One of the most exciting areas that VR presents for content creators is shared experiences such as the Eve: Valkyrie game due to ship with Oculus Rift. Then there’s Red Bull and its plans to launch a full-time linear Red Bull TV channel, which will bring virtual reality elements to its sports, music and entertainment content. Imagine putting on a headset, which transforms your surroundings and puts you in the midst of your favorite band performing to a crowd on their headline tour, live.

While all of this sounds exciting, the additional strain that VR will put on networks is a major concern. To be able to support data-powered innovations such as VR, global connectivity providers have invested heavily in capacity, engineering a future-proofed backbone that shouldn’t buckle under the extra pressure. The biggest challenge lies in last-mile networks which need to be able to carry VR content to homes and provide a seamless, genuinely immersive experience for consumers.

The issue is the huge increase in bandwidth demand generated by VR content: VR requires about five times as much bandwidth as HDTV, as well as very low latency to support an immersive experience. While large service providers offer the backbone capabilities, cloud footprint, advanced traffic management and content delivery networks at the core, many of today’s access technologies at home do not support such requirements, preventing high quality live streaming of VR content from the cloud. Instead, the user will need to buffer or store the content locally, which limits commercial opportunities with VR, starting with online gaming.

Intelligent traffic management solutions, compression algorithms and investments in very low latency, high throughput networks will help last-mile networks to cope with the demands of VR content. Only such investments will prevent a stop-start and delayed connection that could dampen the experience, or potentially destroy it.

In the future, as VR begins to reach the masses, the next natural development will be for these technologies to go mobile. Today’s 4G connections won’t be able to handle VR, so fiber networks will play a central role as the backhaul for delivering the seamless, high quality connectivity that these immersive experiences will demand.

Beyond the hype of the latest and greatest VR gadgets, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the pressure that this rich traffic will place on networks, to ensure that networks are smart enough and robust enough to provide the brilliant user experience that consumers expect.

According to Downie, VR and AR will be for gaming first, but eventually will spread far beyond that, touching upon training, education, virtual travel, and just hanging out with our fellow humans. It’ll add another very significant twist to social media and how people interact with each other, including virtual meetings and collaboration at work.

VR’s success will be largely dependent on last-mile networks which will enable it to flourish – taking entertainment to a new level and opening up new revenue streams for content providers through cloud-based distribution on-demand. Investments in low latency, high throughput and intelligent networks could mean that a technology that was dreamt up around 60 years ago will finally become a reality for millions.