LONDON -- VR & AR World -- Virtual Reality (VR) is the "wild west" today, according to Paola Sunna, sound and multimedia researcher at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Speaking at the VR & AR World event in London this week, Sunna said that a complex and still rapidly evolving ecosystem of technologies, a lack of standards, and no clear understanding of how the VR experience should be produced and delivered made it an extremely unpredictable market.
The EBU is an alliance of 73 public service media organizations in Europe (as well as 34 from other parts of the world). Members operate 2,000 TV and radio stations between them, and reach more than 1 billion people worldwide. In the past the body has got involved with developing common approaches and coordinating technology standards to help drive the creation of new ecosystems -- and VR is no exception.
Sunna divided efforts into two categories: the simpler and more easily delivered 3-DoF (Degrees of Freedom) and the more advanced 6-DoF. With 3-DoF VR, users can move their heads and look around within the VR environment from a fixed vantage point. But 6-DoF allows for users to actively move around in the environment. Simpler platforms like smartphones and Google Cardboard can support 3-DoF, but 6-DoF requires specialized headsets like an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
"We will have a 3-DoF standard available by the end of the year," she said, "but 6-DoF requires very complex computing and is a time-consuming process. Perhaps we will need a new codec for this. Work is in progress, but it will take time."
EBU is not developing its own standards in VR, but it is a charter member of the Virtual Reality Industry Forum (VRIF) formed earlier this year. The VRIF is an industry group of about 35 stakeholders, working with various standards bodies to coordinate the development of standards and identify best practices for production and distribution of VR. (See Sync or Sink: VRIF on VR Innovation.)
Sunna identified some of the key areas where work was required. "MPEG standards are key," she said, specifically citing MPEG-I, a new standard being developed for immersive video. She anticipates an MPEG standard coming out for 3-DoF by the end of 2017 or early 2018. That would be Phase 1 of the process, with Phase 1b (improvements on Phase 1) by end of 2019, and Phase 2 (for 6-DoF) coming out by 2021/2022.
In addition, she said the EBU and VRIF were working with a number of other standards bodies for VR specifications, including the following:
- DVB : The CM-VR group is working on a commercial specification for 3-DoF, expected to be released at the end of 2017. It is also monitoring the potential for a 6-DoF spec from DVB.
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) : The VR/AR working group is developing eight standards related to VR.
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) : Developing a web VR standard for viewing in a browser,
- International Telecommunication Union (ITU) : The ITU-R is looking at standards for VR production.
- Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG): The JPEG XT group is exploring standards for omnidirectional photos.
Sunna is also concerned about the evolution of audio technologies as they relate to the immersive VR experience. She is looking at the development of object-based audio, allowing for more personalization and interactivity, and scene-based audio, which can enable point-of-view listening experiences within VR. This requires more work in the area of spatialized audio -- the ability to play a sound as if it is positioned in a 3D space.
"There is no clear understanding of VR audio," according to Sunna. "More exploration is needed."
Apart from standards, Sunna cautioned that the industry needed to also better understand various other elements: the evaluation of the VR experience and the various technology challenges presented by VR.
While the EBU is principally concerned with driving VR adoption within the broadcast industry, these are the standards and technologies that network operators will have to work with, to enable new VR experiences for their broadband and TV subscribers. It's important they keep abreast of these developments, if not get actively involved in shaping them: VR is the fattest of fat video applications, and will have a significant impact on network capacity in coming years.