Late last year wireless guru and BCStrategies colleague Michael Finneran wrote a follow-up post to an article I had written titled “Wireless Networking for the Metaverse”. In the post, he asks several relevant questions about the metaverse and its networking requirements. While it’s impossible to answer this question fully, as we don’t even know what will become of the metaverse, I will attempt to address what we do know and provide some insight into the needs of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), as applied to network infrastructure.
The Metaverse has a lot of unknowns, but we know it includes a mix of technologies, like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Although these technologies are often grouped together, they are very different and have different use cases. From a networking perspective, we’ll talk about the similarities first, then dive into the differences.
How AR and VR are similar
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are currently delivered through headsets, such as Microsoft HoloLens 2 and Meta Oculus Quest 2, respectively. Since these technologies replace or augment your view of reality, the underlying networking is essential for several reasons. Early versions of VR, and most high-end devices still today, required a connection to a powerful gaming-like PC, where networking is less of a concern due to the wired connection. Over the past few years, the shift to wireless VR and AR headsets has been in full force, allowing users to move much more freely without tethered cords.
As the shift to wireless headsets progresses, the following network challenges must be addressed to deliver a good user experience in the context of enterprise collaboration in AR and VR.
1. Latency – While it is obvious that latency is an issue in any real-time collaboration application, it is of crucial importance in augmented reality and virtual reality. The idea with VR collaboration is to feel like you’re in the same place – a delay in voice packet delivery can disrupt that. And even things like the timing of hand gestures, especially when there are only a few non-verbal cues, can be rejected with a latency of over 0.5 seconds.
Another issue with detaching headsets is that graphics processing now has to be done inside the headset rather than on a PC. Currently, Oculus is solving this problem with the mobile processors in its Oculus Quest 2 headset. While this works quite well, VR is very graphics-intensive and is limited by the power of the mobile processor. One way around this problem is to leverage the cloud for graphics processing, much like Google does on its Stadia gaming platform. On Stadia, you can play a complex game in a web browser because the cloud does the processing and the browser streams the output. Virtual reality could follow the same path, but now the latency is even more important; this is becoming a critical factor in the success of virtual reality and augmented reality. Even small delays of 30ms can cause discomfort and even nausea. Harnessing the power of graphics processing remotely is exciting, but if the infrastructure can’t support it, it will literally make people sick.
– Bandwidth is another concern, especially when streaming content to the headset. I was talking with folks from Extreme Networks at their partner conference last fall on this very topic, where I was reminded not to forget about density. A situation can arise when there are multiple VR or AR headsets in the same area, all competing for radio spectrum and bandwidth. If a group of users are simultaneously sharing virtual 8k 360-degree video, bandwidth could quickly become an issue.
3. Consistency – As with any voice or video application, consistency is extremely important. Even small interruptions to a collaboration session can provide a bad experience. Real-time communication glitches, jitter, hangs, and other anomalies are frustrating, especially when trying to create an immersive experience.
How AR and VR differ
Now that we’ve covered the challenges they have in common, let’s turn our attention to their differences. Some differences include:
- Virtual reality is not a mobile device – Since VR replays your visual reality with virtual reality, walking around with it is not a good idea. YouTube is full of videos of people losing track of their physical surroundings. Even untethered, virtual reality is meant to be used in a static space. That means it’s an ideal candidate for Wi-Fi since it’s typically used indoors and in the same space repeatedly.
- AR can be a mobile device – Since AR is just your augmented visual reality, it can be – and will be as the form factor improves – a device you wear all day. Considering the mobility aspect, 5G comes into play in a big way. As mentioned earlier, high bandwidth and low latency are necessary for a good user experience, especially when we are looking at experiences like rendering holograms in a collaboration session.
It should be noted that Apple rumors about AR and VR devices abound. If they can take advantage of the graphics processing and 5G that already exist in modern iPhones, they can develop sleeker headsets with better battery life, making them ripe for mass adoption. This could prove to be a huge advantage in this wide open market. As an aside, using an iPhone for VR and AR would require a high-bandwidth local connection from the phone to the AR/VR device, something like the Ultra-Wideband that Apple recently rolled out. . But that topic is another article for another day.
While we don’t know exactly what will become of the Metaverse, we do know that planning ahead will be critical to its success in the enterprise. The network requirements discussed in the post are not all unique to augmented reality and virtual reality, but the rapid growth ahead should come as no surprise to organizations.