There is a lot of excitement in the industry regarding immersive experiences, but what exactly are they? From a virtual reality (VR) perspective, the experience is typically a computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real-life environment or scenario. It immerses the user by making them feel like they are experiencing the simulated reality firsthand, primarily through the stimulation of vision and hearing.

From an augmented reality (AR) perspective, a user’s experience is enhanced by adding virtual components as an overlay to the real world in order to make it more meaningful through the ability to interact with it.

For a full immersive experience, 360° video is included so a user can see and explore from all angles. With 360° video a user can look around and feel as if they are present while watching a video – such as visiting the Taj Mahal, going to the moon, watching a football game from the 50-yard line or consulting with a doctor.

And while these immersive experiences offer a plethora of exciting opportunities for devices, applications and services, they also have the ability to impact a number of industries including advertising, retail, education, healthcare, military, real estate, and entertainment.

But immersive experiences also expose the limitations of the current network and the challenges facing network operators.

Immersive experiences with 360° video applications require a lot of data. A low resolution 360° experience – which is available with most VR head-mounted displays – requires at least 25Mbit/s for streaming. For resolutions comparable to HD TV the requirement jumps to 80-100Mbit/s. However, if you want the best “retinal” 360° video experience (as you get watching a 4k TV), as much as 600Mbit/s is required.

And all that bandwidth demand is a concern given the forecasts for VR/AR. Deloitte Global predicts that VR will have its first billion dollar year in 2016, with about $700 million in hardware sales (including 2.5 million VR headsets), while the remainder of the revenue is from content. IDC predicts 10 million AR/VR units in 2016 growing to 110 million by 2020.

Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research’s base case sees $80 billion in revenue by 2025 with $45 billion in hardware and $35 billion in software, while Digi-Capital predicts $120 million by 2020.

In short, there is a very high probability that unprecedented levels of data will have to move across the network and in some cases be cached locally to ensure low latency.

Virtual Reality Will Require Real Infrastructure

The challenge of delivering virtual reality technology will focus on the network. Networks will need more storage at their data center hubs, as well as more edge data centers to distribute content. And low latency will be at the heart of its capabilities.

Although most global connectivity providers offer the backbone capabilities, cloud footprint, advanced traffic management and content delivery networks at the core; connectivity to the end user – the “last mile” – will likely prove to be the bottleneck, preventing high-quality live streaming of VR content from the cloud.

According to Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet Report1, only 7.1% of global connections were above 25 Mbit/s, while global average connection speeds were a low 5.6 Mbit/s. So clearly there is a lot of work to be done to increase bandwidth speeds to the levels necessary to support VR/AR.

Last mile networks will need intelligent traffic management solutions, compression algorithms and very low-latency, high-throughput capabilities to handle the demands of VR content. Otherwise, users will experience delays and a stop-start connection which would significantly diminish the experience, even causing the user to become disorientated and nauseous.  Although there are options to restrict VR to static, interaction-free, locally stored content, it defeats the purpose of the immersive experience.

As such, gigabit-based last mile networks will play a central role as the backhaul for delivering the seamless, high-quality connectivity that these immersive experiences will demand.

Facebook Leading the Vision for a Virtual Future

Virtual reality will require levels of computing power, connectivity and data storage that are unprecedented in today’s network. As these technologies move toward the mainstream, they will drive major changes in IT infrastructure.

The best window into the potential impact of virtual reality on the network is provided by Facebook, already an industry leader with the infrastructure it has built to support its nearly 1.7 billion users. With its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014, it was clear that virtual reality would be a key component of Facebook’s vision for not only its own future but also for communications in general.

Facebook is actively working on compression technologies and field-of-view (FoV) streaming that can reduce the amount of bandwidth required for 360° video by as much as 25 percent. In addition, encoding 360° video with a pyramid geometry has been demonstrated to reduce file size by 80 percent against the original.

By using cube maps, Facebook has decreased the bit rate and saved storage without impacting the video quality and resolution. In addition, view-dependent adaptive bit rate streaming has allowed Facebook to optimize the experience in VR. Out of the full 360° frame, only what can be seen in the field of vision is streamed, which in the case of the GearVR is 96°. This results in an FoV resolution less than 4K, which can be decoded with current mobile hardware.

This is just one of the many engineering challenges that Facebook is trying to solve to bring the immersive experience to the masses.

The Telecom Infra Project

Realizing the bigger network impact, Facebook is expanding on its Open Compute Project, through the launch of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to address the challenges facing network operators for future applications such as VR/AR.

TIP brings together operators, infrastructure providers, system integrators, and other industry players to work together to develop new technologies and rethink approaches to deploying network architecture that leverage advances in the technology and an open approach to development. These developments will likely play a key role in future 5G networks.

TIP has created project groups to support three strategic network areas: access, backhaul, and core and management.

In addition to TIP, through its Connectivity Lab, Facebook recently introduced two new terrestrial systems focused on improving the speed, efficiency and quality of internet connectivity on a global basis – Terragraph and Project ARIES (Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum). We’ll detail those projects in another blog post.

VR Reality Check

With over $3.5 billion (not including acquisitions) of venture capital invested in the VR/AR markets, there is great hope that immersive applications will open up new revenue streams and business opportunities for a wide range of industries. As such, network operators will need to fully understand the impact this type of traffic will place on their networks. Through partnerships such as TIP, operators hope to develop cost effective solutions that will provide the low-latency, high-throughput, intelligent networks down to the last mile, enabling them to offer users fully immersive experiences that are more realistic, engaging, and satisfying.

1 Akamai The State of the Internet/Q4 2015