The sky is the limit…literally: Improved spectrum required for an optimal virtual world

Escapism is becoming easier nowadays with new and exciting developments in technology. Who needs old-fashioned TV and books when you can delve into whole other worlds created for your sensory pleasure?

Although the concept of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is not new, this technology has experienced an influx of developments in the industry of late, gearing it up to be the next big thing, with a combined revenue prediction of US $150 billion for 2020. Whilst the creatives in the industry are gleeful at the prospect of making their dreams a reality capable of being experienced by millions, is it fair to say that the sky is the limit with this technology or are there barriers to developments in this area?

Limitations to an immersive VR and AR experience

The key feature of VR and AR technology is to enable users, through the use of 360degree video content, to be immersed in these alternate worlds and experience them as if they were reality. But therein lies the problem. Humans can process approximately 5.2 gigabits per second of sound and light but low quality 360degree video content requires a speed of only 30 megabits per second. This is a huge difference.

The true measure of success of VR/AR technology is how realistic and immersive the experience is for the user. This means latency is key, or in other words, the amount of delay before a transfer of data (in this context, the lag between video images). To be able to trick our brains into perceiving the virtual as reality, VR technology should in an ideal world (so to speak) have a latency of 7-15 milliseconds. This is not an easy feat – the higher the latency, the more likely it will be for users to experience nausea and other side effects due to delays in images adjusting to head and eye movements when using VR/AR hardware.

This technology has created a thirst for higher network capacity so that users can consume such video-heavy content. Available bandwidth and consistent connectivity are important considerations in the development of this technology, as low bandwidth and patchy connectivity will be an inherent obstacle to developments in this area. Add to this the need to adapt to influxes in demand for VR content, for example a popular live event (e.g. the Super Bowl) or a VR gaming app going viral (such as Pokémon Go), which places a large strain on network capacity and exacerbates the problem. Storage is also a key contributing factor to the success of this technology, as video content clearly requires a large amount of space.

Issues with latency, bandwidth and storage all unavoidably point the finger of responsibility at mobile carriers and internet service providers to update their infrastructure.

So what is the solution? 

The solution is greater and more efficient use of bandwidth. Only six years on from the rollout of its predecessor, the industry is already developing the next generation of networks. 5G should offer greater data speeds and bandwidth to be able to cope with the demands that VR and AR technology place on networks. There are rumblings of 5G using millimetre wave transmission, which, put simply, will allow for a higher data capacity, which is ideal for video-hungry technology such as VR. However, these technical parameters are all hypothetical at this stage as the definition of 5G is so vague. Despite this uncertainty as to what 5G will actually look like, mobile carriers are claiming that the earliest rollout date for 5G is 2020.

Many commentators are calling out for an international standard of 5G requirements and echo the sentiments of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). This is an initiative backed by Facebook (owner of VR hardware industry leader, Oculus) which was formed to overhaul the telecom network infrastructure to meet the world's growing data needs, including the scope of a 5G rollout. Other members of TIP include mobile providers and operators such as MTN, Vodafone and T-Mobile. TIP recognises that the development of 5G will be integral to further advancements in the age of the "internet of things". The number of devices and applications requiring inter-connectivity is only going to increase and, coupled with the demands placed on networks by technology like VR and AR, one thing is clear: the next generation is going to have to be a lot faster.

The downside to this development is the cost. The higher demand for capacity, the more network operators will inevitably have to spend on spectrum and new network rollouts, with such cost needing to be passed onto consumers. It will be interesting to see whether this will present a barrier to potential VR/AR users. If the cost of 5G is prohibitively expensive, consumption of VR and AR technology may be influenced accordingly, such that users limit themselves to 4G and wi-fi for internet content. This could either mean that users avoid VR and AR content altogether due to bandwidth constraints or latency issues, or will have a profoundly dissatisfying experience of these new alternate worlds.

What's next?

With three of the key limiting factors to the growth of VR and AR technology being latency, bandwidth and storage, it is clear that the rollout of 5G will be a significant factor determining the direction and pace of development of VR and AR technology. A need to develop a recognisable standard of 5G will require cooperation from industry players, governments and regulators in order to achieve a successful rollout.

However, much could be done too to improve current 4G capacity to make connectivity more consistent. The UK, for example, is lagging behind many other countries in terms of coverage. Perhaps the immediate first step should be to improve our current networks, rather than waiting to see what the future will look like with 5G.

What's clear is that the solution needs to be smart enough to cope with demands on bandwidth and deliver a connection that users require in order to experience a seamless transition into a virtual world.

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