So you want to get into virtual reality? It’s a great time to do so, because VR is here to stay—awkward headgear or not.
Unlike other passing tech fads that have fallen to the wayside, VR has utility that extends beyond gimmicky entertainment tricks. Games and immersive experiences are pulling us deeper into virtual entertainment, like Ernest Cline’s Oasis in Ready Player One. Only now instead of the virtual revolution starting with a gaming console or dedicated VR system, it’s beginning with your smartphone.
Consider Pokémon Go, the mobile augmented reality game with over 7.5 million downloads. The game turns your phone into a conduit that uses cameras and GPS to let you engage in a virtual world within real-life surroundings. This is called augmented reality, or AR, where you’re overlaying virtual content on top of the real-world view. However, AR is just the first step into full VR immersion.
VR has always been about immersion into completely artificial worlds and interaction with manufactured people, characters, and environments. Just a few short years ago, people laughed at the idea that VR could change the world. Many people expected a Max Headroom type of display where things looked so incredibly fake and distorted that it was hard to imagine real experiences that embraced virtual interactions. But anyone who’s worn an Oculus Rift can tell you that the immersion can be a visually breathtaking experience that delivers 4K, and soon, 8K video.
New applications like Pokémon Go will act like a gateway drug—building our appetite for not only more engaging content, but also new hardware. Before you know it, paying for a VR headset like Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, or HTC VIVE, or investing in computers to power them won’t seem so far-fetched for the average consumer.
In order for VR to take off in more than gaming and entertainment, quality content and efficient ways to distribute it need to be addressed. Everything from security, retail, construction, and tourism will benefit from this technology, giving access to thousands—if not millions—of people. Yet these immersive experiences demand pristine content delivery that can affordably scale with audience growth. As such, video quality (resolution), seamless playback, and low latency will make or break VR’s success.
Breaking Down Quality and Delivery Barriers to Spur Adoption
VR delivers high-value experiences, yet it does require some thoughtful preparation—especially for live events. The recent rise of 360-degree video allows for viewers to be virtually transported to a live event such as a sporting event, concert, or political rally. But to feel like you’re there, you need the highest quality possible. The higher the image quality, the bigger the bitrate (and final file size for a video-on-demand asset), which in turn requires greater bandwidth. Currently, most 360-degree video tends to be captured with low-resolution cameras, but more 4K and even 8K cameras are on the rise.
For everyday consumers, streaming 360-degree video from the NBA, Periscope, and Facebook can eat up data plans, resulting in expensive phone bills, while also contributing to significant network congestion with a high volume of viewers. The congestion means that the user’s experience can be dramatically hindered, as the network chokes on sending the fat data to the mobile device. Therefore, network operators, content producers, and consumers have a keen interest in the efficient delivery of VR.
360-degree VR streaming also introduces another challenge—latency—which affects two unique aspects of the viewing experience: head-motion and scaling quality. If you’re moving your head (or eyes) and there’s lag between your movement and video refresh, you notice motion-to-photon latency. Ideally you want a refresh rate less than 11ms at 90Hz for desktops, and 16ms at 60Hz for mobile devices. If you have more than that, you’ll likely experience nausea.
The other latency issue arises when you try to reduce bandwidth requirements through adaptive streaming. As an example, one approach is dynamically adapting the stream to deliver high quality video only where the viewer is looking—so within their field of view (FOV)—and lower resolution everywhere else. As soon as the sensors in the headset detect that the user has moved their FOV, the area where they are now looking snaps into sharp focus, and needs to do so within a few hundred milliseconds (ms). It is this latency that is critical, and it will require streaming with a latency of less than 200 ms. Some providers are implementing this technology into what they call Field-of-View Adaptive Streaming or View-Optimized Streaming.
One of the final challenges is implementing high-efficiency encoding that reduces the bandwidth needed to deliver video streams. Both the VP9 and HEVC codecs are supported by most HTML5 players and mobile devices, and enable the same quality video at a lower bitrate, alleviating cost, quality, and delivery issues. However, they also require a bit more horsepower on the playback device to decode the stream.
The Reality of Virtual Reality: Put a Game Plan in Place
User experience is going to be the driving force behind many of the technology decisions when you develop a VR engagement. The last thing that consumers, network operators, or content producers want is for their VR content to choke the network and deliver a poor user experience, which would distract from the immersive content.
In general, companies should consider these best practices to ensure they lay the groundwork for building high-quality VR:
* Consider the bitrate you need to deliver the highest quality stream, and provide adaptive bitrate streams that enable the flexibility required for VR content.
* Use 360-degree adaptive streaming technology to minimize the data footprint and deliver an dynamically-adjusted viewing experience.
* Determine how important low latency is for the live experience and tune your streaming workflow accordingly.
* Adopt high-efficiency codecs, such as VP9 and HEVC.
The Value of Virtual Reality
VR has the ability to create technology-enabled experiences, ushering in the Internet of Experiences. Looking at this year’s CES, far too many consumer electronics manufacturers would have you believe that the virtual experience, such as sitting in a VR car, is almost as good as the real thing. And the potential goes far beyond games and entertainment. When you take the ability to place a viewer in an immersive environment that they can explore on their own and add data enhancements on top of their video feed, you can begin to imagine use cases that apply to corporate training, industrial monitoring, education, medical research, e-commerce, or a plethora of other non-entertainment applications.
Businesses must stop looking at VR as the next generation of cool entertainment media, and instead consider it as an informational tool with specific niche uses. By taking steps now to plan an infrastructure that supports the quality and distribution aspects of VR, businesses will be better equipped to drive adoption of VR across industries and use cases.
VR is going to hit faster than most of us can imagine. The more we continue to augment our reality, the more we’ll find ourselves bouncing back and forth between mixed reality experiences. In reality, we already get lost down the Facebook and social media rabbit hole, and it’s easy to see ourselves going through the looking glass into virtual worlds.
Oasis is not that far away.