Virtual Reality has been trumpeted for some years now as the next big thing in computer entertainment but with each passing year, it’s always next year that going to be the big one. Indeed, many commentators now wonder if it will be the victim of the infamous hype cycle, and like many new innovations, is headed for the “trough of despair” and will only occupy niche markets in the end. However, Virtual Reality has the potential to open up applications beyond entertainment such as healthcare, engineering and manufacturing so pursuing it must be worthwhile. Why then is it not happening?

Certainly, the processing required to create realistic virtual scenes is a factor, making headsets both bulky and expensive or requiring them to be tethered to a computer. If we could produce lightweight, low cost headsets then that could really help to expand the use of Virtual Reality. So, can 5G provide a route to that and be the catalyst for Virtual Reality to become mainstream? Well, 5G does have capabilities that might help, let’s see how.

A Streaming Paradigm

The idea here is that you stream Virtual Reality content to a local headset rather than relying on local rendering of images. In this way you take advantage of massive processing power in the cloud to render and update Virtual Reality scenes and then send them as a live video stream over the 5G network. This greatly simplifies the design of headsets, reducing weight, cost and power consumption. It’s a capability that has be demonstrated recently by Vodafone at it’s Digital Innovation Hub in MediaCityUK. The limitation at the moment, of course, is the availability of 5G networks but they are starting to roll out now and the arrival of a 5G iPhone should help to accelerate that. But what about performance? Will 5G be able to deliver the performance to support the Steaming Paradigm at scale?

Managing 5G performance

For the Streaming Paradigm to work 5G networks have to be able to guarantee a level of experience that maintains the virtual illusion, any loss would not be acceptable. With 5G there is an anytime, anywhere, anything promise of service and it is armed with a number of capabilities to meet that promise. Firstly, a scalable Radio Area Network, or RAN, provides the possibility to tune bandwidth, increasing available bandwidth in areas of dense population. Orchestration and Network Slicing mean that the core software can create virtual networks with guaranteed performance criteria. 5G edge computing also has a part to play in delivering the experience as it allows processing to be distributed and nearer to the point of consumption, effectively reducing image lag that can dog virtual experience.

Timing?

As the saying goes “it’s the secret to comedy” and so it is with 5G and video streaming. It will take time to roll out the services required, some are still not standardised, so will they arrive in time to help Virtual Reality? The answer, as with all new technology, is it probably will be more evolution rather than a revolution. It will take time for the paradigm to become a reality, but reality it will be. Therefore, it’s likely that you’ll see hybrid systems that gradually evolve and that that will be sufficient for Virtual Reality to become more mainstream. Virtual Reality has such potential that is my hope anyway.