We often hear that video and virtual reality will drive huge growth in mobile data consumption. It’s a major theme for 5G. So last week I attended Virtual Reality World Congress to find out what all the fuss is about. It helped me clarify the differences in several immersive video technologies, realise that the majority of opportunities are business-related rather than purely for pleasure and that super low latency/super fast broadband aren't mandatory for all applications.
Now in its third year, this UK event is based in Bristol but drew speakers from as far as California and China. It’s not huge like MWC yet – something over 1000 attended – and had a fairly technical focus. While there have been many failed VR startups, several presenters explained how they are already making money with ambitious plans for growth.
The opening keynote was outstanding, with Rod Taylor of AMD interspersing invited guest speakers to illustrate and reinforce his points.
What is Virtual Reality anyway? Differentiating VR, AR, MR, 360
Let’s introduce some clarity on terminology before we start. The Foundry has the best explanation I’ve found so far, differentiating between several popular acronyms.
Virtual Reality (VR): Immersive multimedia computer simulation, replicating real-world or synthetic environments allowing interaction. Equipment starts with simple Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) such as Google Cardboard up to HTV Vive.
360 Video: Immersive video and sound recorded simultaneously in all directions. The viewer can choose what angle to look at during playback. Already supported by browsers such as Chrome. Sound played back varies depending on direction of view.
CGVR (Computer Generated Virtual Reality): Entirely computer generated 360 video and audio content. Can be pre-rendered as for 360 video recordings or rendered in real-time using a games engine.
Augmented Reality (AR): Overlays computer generated content with real-world content, but the computer generated video is not anchored or tightly linked by position. For example a text description of the buildings or activities available nearby.
Mixed Reality (MR): A hybrid that merges real and virtual worlds, overlaying synthetic content directly anchored to the position of live video. For example, overlaying a previous ultrasound/MRI scan of a patient viewed live on the operating table. Microsoft HoloLens is a leading example.
It’s not primarily about games
It’s easy to think that VR is primarily about the games industry, the next Playstation or Nintendo gadget for home. The gamer on the left is a popular setup today. The "shuffleboard" 360 rig show on the right introduced a new concept of more active feet movement.
Some VR games are quite disorienting and can cause motion sickness. The latest ones use arm movements to determine running vs walking vs leaping.
About a third of the show did include that, but there are much greater potential markets such as in training, engineering design and health applications. Imagine if your call centre support can see exactly what you are seeing (so like a Skype video call) and draw pointers which you can see overlaid on real objects showing what you need to touch or turn and in which direction?
Cutting the cord
Most of today’s VR headsets and controllers are connected by cables, which are inevitably intrusive and even a potential health hazard. A demonstration of Microsoft’s HoloLens live streaming over regular Wi-Fi illustrated the typical several seconds lag. What’s needed is very fast, low latency wireless connectivity. But the HMDs consume a fair amount of power, so cutting the cord also means a hefty battery pack.
The immediate answer is 802.11ad WiGig at 60GHz which satisfies these requirements within the same room. AMD has just acquired Nitero and are said to be focussing more on HMDs than smartphones. They’ve built a tailored solution based on the Wi-Gig 60GHz 802.11ad with beam forming but didn’t state what datarates or latency delays they are achieving. HTC is working with TPCast, a Chinese company, launching a wireless add-on kit ($249) for their Vive HMD.
The residential market seems to be driven by a subscription model for games, where for a monthly fee you have access to run the latest and more popular games. Who knows but maybe Netflix will expand into this territory? Facebook, who bought Oculus for $2 billion, just announced availability of Facebook Spaces - a full Virtual Reality World where you never have to see your friends in real life again.
Headset sales to date are below analyst forecasts but it’s thought that big budget games such as Fallout 4 will be groundbreaking for growth. Some 122 million HMDs are forecast by 2020. Chinese HMD vendor DeePoon is one to watch.
If you just want to view a 360 film, you could buy an Igloo (see right) – a dome available in sizes for 1 to 1000 viewers - but I don’t think many people would have quite enough room to fit one in their home. There should be lots of potential in corporate and entertainment centres.
Attractive market potential in Virtual Reality entertainment centres
The cost and space required for high quality VR equipment makes it attractive to visit a purpose-built facility. Some systems have fixed sensors to track hand/head position with sub-millimeter accuracy and you can’t go outside the box.
Cinema chains are one business looking to expand into this concept. You can pay for a one-off game or a half-day session, playing on your own or in a shared experience with friends.
French cinema chain MK2 have already served over 10,000 customers with virtual reality – not in cinema seats but dedicated gaming booths. Kids from 6 years old pay 12 Euros (approx. $10) for 20 minutes. Howies Game Shack in California has evolved from a traditional games supplier [Ed Note: Sadly closed down in 2019]. SoReal is building the first “VR theme park” in Nanjing, with 32,000 sq feet and 25 fully interactive chairs. They already operate a 10,000 sq feet facility in Beijing. Their CEO thinks China will be #1 film market worldwide within 5 years and forecasts 1000’s of VR locations will appear throughout China by 2020. I’d compare this to the rise of the Internet Café during the 1990s.
Training and Design
About two thirds of the event looked at business applications for VR rather than consumer entertainment. “Hands on” training is very popular. One demo showed a physical firehose and fireman’s jacket with heating elements that could simulate the effects of putting out a fire (or not), but without the danger or being burnt or getting wet. Another from BAE systems showed maintenance training for aircraft, pointing out precisely which hatches, valves and bolts need to be checked for each operation.
The equipment to do this is out of the price range of most consumers but justifiable in a business context. For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens (shown right) is priced at $5,000 each (discounted to $3,000 for developers). Development software is free.
Clicks and Links demonstrated how the technology can overlay CAD models with photographic images, switching between them within London’s latest underground Crossrail tunnel project. Vin Summer explained that interactive delays of several seconds can be tolerated by design engineers collaborating in real-time on a project, unlike the sub-second latency required for interactive gaming. The bulk of the video delay today is in the image processing and rendering rather than (wired) data transmission.
Corporate branding videos
OWL VR in Bristol UK is a good example of a startup already creating and producing 360 videos for a variety of clients. They have developed their own range of 360 camera mounts, typically based on GoPro Heros, including one mounted on a remote controlled robot (shown left). There’s a growing market for virtual tours of venues, universities and music videos but significant opportunities for corporate videos promoting brands and businesses.
In the past, I’ve heard of problems when recording 360 video where one camera can shutdown due to overheating. If not noticed it results in entire scenes needing to be re-recorded. These issues seem to have been overcome in the later designs. It’s still a lot more complex to record a 360 video because the director can’t be physically present in the room.
Distributing high quality VR
It seems to me that locally generated VR places fewer constraints on the wide area networks. Entertainment or training locations can deliver wireless service using localised WiGig wireless.
Where the video is centrally broadcast and streamed then higher data rates and lower latencies will be required. Google’s Jamieson Brettle explained how the Opus codec can compress 16 channel audio into 384kbps and the open source DRACO video codec can compress 40Mbyte scenes into 2.6Mbytes with a 35ms decode time. The local HMD selects and synthesises the appropriate video and audio feeds based on the viewers position and direction.
Implications for cellular networks
A strong argument is being made for 5G based on the need to support huge amounts of video in the future, especially VR. I expect 360 video to become more common, viewed either in a standard browser or dedicated App, but don’t expect this to require hugely greater datastreams than HD video.
I expect most of this video content to be viewed in-building rather than when outdoors walking about. Dedicated locations are very likely to use Wi-Gig for cordless operation but that won’t work so well for wide area or large shared public area use.
It remains to be seen if Mixed Reality headsets, evolving from something like the Microsoft HoloLens, may become popular in the future, especially for business use. These could drive demand for higher bandwidth in urban and outdoor areas.
Therefore, in my view, 4G/LTE should be able to satisfy demand for cellular VR applications, especially where densification through small cells is deployed.
There are many dedicated VR conferences as well as sections within larger events, such as the Mobile World Congress series.
I met Clayton Doherty, Chairman of the World Virtual Reality Forum, which is holding it’s annual summit next month in Switzerland. This event has more focus on content creation and attracts plenty of film producers and directors (its just prior the Cannes Film Festival). Also next month, there's Virtual Reality World in London and Vision VR/AR Summit in Hollywood.