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VR demand set to grow, but little prospect for telcos

Over the last 20 years or so we have regularly revisited the developments in virtual reality (VR). I remember experiencing VR for the first time in the late 1980s, so this technology has been in the making for a very long time. And we are still uncertain about its growth over the next decade.

There is no doubt that VR is going through a period of revival. Over the past decades there have been some very good engineering, training and medical applications developed by specialised VR firms, but the human factor remains a key issue, both in the general public environment and in these specialised situations.

Most people have problems using the VR headsets for any length of time and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the applications. Consumers are too reluctant to embrace the technology on a large scale for it to become mainstream. To date, gaming has been one of the few markets to show more than average interest (and this has been the case for the past 20 years as well), but beyond that not much has happened in the consumer market.

This update was prompted by the publication of a new report by Telsyte, in which they predicted that demand for virtual reality headsets will outweigh supply this year, with stronger market growth to follow in 2017-18 as manufacturers catch up.

Telsyte tipped VR for gaming consoles to represent the largest share of local market, but with other segments to follow – including streaming entertainment players and even smartphones, which it suggested would be augmented rather than replaced by VR peripherals.

Several firms such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Samsung have shown their VR strategies, services and hardware, and have been talking about the potential of VR over high-speed telecoms networks, fixed and mobile. However the reality is that a true VR experience will require two streams of 4K, one for each eye. This would require large-scale fibre optic networks.

Large-scale deployment of such fibre infrastructure is still a decade away, even longer in some countries. So for the time being compression technologies will need to be improved significantly in order to compensate for the lack of bandwidth capacity available in the current broadband systems. Little is known about the technical possibilities here, as the technology to do so is not yet developed for any commercial use.

So for the foreseeable future VR will remain mainly in the domain of stand-alone devices, waiting for new breakthroughs. It looks to me as though virtual and augmented reality will need a radically new approach – leaving the current VR headset technology behind and coming up with a totally new direction.

While I have no idea what this next step might be, or where it might come from, it looks like the current format of VR might have run its course and is in need of a rethink.

Paul Budde