The Year Ahead: Delivering on the Promise of Virtual Reality

Jan. 3, 2017
The growth of virtual reality and augmented reality may require more investment in data centers, as well as innovation in networking, perhaps employing peer-to-peer technology or blockchains.

This is the first in a series of stories looking at key technology trends and their impact on the data center sector in 2017.

In 2016 Pokemon Go demonstrated the power of augmented reality to disrupt the world of entertainment, as well as our digital infrastructure.

The game from Niantic became a cultural phenomenon, driving half a billion downloads. By placing digital creatures into our phones and environment, it became the first breakout hit for virtual reality and augmented reality technology.

In the process, Pokemon Go provided an unexpected stress test for one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated infrastructures, the Google Cloud Platform. The game’s launch generated 50 times more traffic than anticipated, leaving many gamers frustrated with login failures and inconsistent uptime. That’s not what we’re used to seeing from Google’s infrastructure.

The lesson: When it comes to network resources, virtual reality is likely to be an entirely new animal, with a mind-blowing impact on networks and data centers. A video at the 6K resolution used by the GearVR headset could be 20 times the size of today’s full HD video. All that data will have to move across the network, and in some cases be cached locally to assure low latency.

The emergence of virtual reality is likely to have several impacts. Advances in compression may help make file sizes more manageable. Data center executives say VR will be a key driver of edge computing, prompting the deployment of micro-data centers in smaller markets. Industry watchers say VR could also usher in new approaches to large file distribution, perhaps using peer-to-peer technology or blockchain-based economies for machine-to-machine transactions.

The key wildcard in this transition is timing. There’s broad agreement that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will eventually gain wide adoption, and will require additional investment in network infrastructure to work at Internet scale.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” said Wes Hanemayer, vice president for video services at Hibernia Networks. “I don’t see anything preventing VR from becoming an enormous success. When will it be pervasive? In 2025 it might be the rule, rather than the exception.”

Bigger Pipes, More Data

Just a month before Pokemon Go grabbed headlines and bandwidth, we published our first look at the impact of virtual reality on infrastructure (The Virtual Reality Future: Bigger Pipes, More Data Centers). At a panel on the topic at Telecom Exchange LA in November, network and data center providers and VR specialists discussed the evolution of VR.

“I think this is going to cause major changes in cultural behavior, in ways we can’t imagine right now,” said Ian Forester, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of VR Playhouse, a Los Angeles creative studio specializing in VR and AR. “It’s gonna be in your browser, and when it scales, it will change the way we interact with the Internet.”

Ian Forester, the Chief Creative Office of VR Playhouse, discusses the growth of virtual reality at Telecom Exchange LA in Los Angeles. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Estimates vary as to how much infrastructure an Internet-scale adoption of VR and AR might require. The short answer is “more.”

Boosting network speed and capacity is one part of the solution. While the enterprise world is preparing to graduate from 40Gbps to 100Gbps network switches, the cloud builders are already focused on 400Gbps networks. At the recent Infrastructure Masons summit, networking pioneer Andy Bechtolsheim of Arista Networks predicted that the growth of cloud and other bandwidth-intensive technologies will drive accelerated adoption of 400Gbps infrastructure.

Hibernia’s Hanemayer agrees, says VR and AR workloads will be factors in this shift. “We shouldn’t be wasting time with 100G,” he said. “By the time we get it we’ll need 400G.”

A Business Case for Edge Computing

Geography is the other piece of the solution. Moving VR workloads closer to users will become a priority, according to Mark Wachtmann, who oversees networks and cloud services at colocation provider IO.

“We’ll be extending the data centers and networks out to the edge, not just in major cities, but in secondary cities,” said Wachtmann. “The trick in the data center world is to extend to the edge.”

Wachtmann says the pending surge of VR and AR workloads will force service providers and content specialists to take a hard look at their IT and network capacity, which is often underutilized. It’s cheaper and smarter to optimize those existing resources than simply throw more infrastructure at the problem, he said.

On the content creator side, Forester says file sizes are exploding in a way that may require new approaches.

“All of a sudden the needs for us have increased exponentially,” he said. “Brute force won’t cut it. More processing power, more GPU power, bigger pipes – we can do that stuff, but at some point it becomes impossible to serve.”[clickToTweet tweet=”Ian Forester on VR delivery: Brute force won’t cut it. At some point it becomes impossible to serve.” quote=”Ian Forester on VR delivery: Brute force won’t cut it. At some point it becomes impossible to serve.”]

One challenge: Virtual reality network demands may challenge the business models of existing infrastructure providers.

“I don’t know how you pay for all this stuff,” said Hanemayer. “You need to make sure the economics keep up. You can’t do this stuff for free.”

“Streaming music had similar challenges,” said Roger Goodman, VP of sales at NTT America. “How do you move large files around in an infrastructure that’s not built for these files? There will be innovations to address things we now see as challenges. Get ready for some surprises as innovation emerges.”

Can Blockchain Tech Provide A Solution?

Several panel members noted the potential for peer-to-peer technologies to provide a distributed network to support virtual reality and augmented reality workloads at scale. Forester pointed specifically to IPFS (InterPlanetary File System), a distributed network created to support large file transfer for the scientific community. The creators of IFPS recently launched Filecoin, a blockchain-based distributed data storage network that uses cryptocurrency to create a file-sharing economy.

A similar approach is being deployed by 21, a startup advancing a “machine payable web” through the use of bitcoin to enable machine-to-machine transactions. The company, which is backed by Andreessen Horowitz and other major venture capital firms, has launched hardware and software solutions to support this vision. The technology allows a piece of hardware to earn bitcoin with every http request, which could subsidize deployments of storage, compute and network hardware that might otherwise be impractical.

“We believe that a third web is coming,” 21 states in an overview. “The first was the World Wide Web of documents, with hyperlinks between nodes. The second was the Social Web, with links between nodes representing friend relationships. And the third is the Machine-Payable Web, where the links between nodes represent payments between machines.”

An overview of 21 Inc.’s vision for a machine-payable web based on machine-to-machine microtransactions. using bitcoin. (Image: 21)

To illustrate the potential, 21 has shown how to use its technology to create a grid computer which allows other machines to use its filesystem in exchange for bitcoin micropayments, monetizing its spare compute resources.

Is 2017 The Year of VR? Watch Snapchat for Hints

Will 2017 be the year when VR and AR gain enough traction to stress test network infrastructure on a larger scale? There have been plenty of false starts before on VR’s  arrival as a mass-market consumer technology.

Christmas 2016 was expected to boost ownership of virtual reality hardware, including the new Playstation VR headsets for the PS4 gaming console. The CES 2017 (Consumer Electronics Show), which kicks off today in Las Vegas, can be expected to generate additional buzz around virtual reality and augmented reality technologies.

The trajectory of VR, and its impact on infrastructure, will be tied to the success of games and entertainment for the new platform. Will titles like 100 Foot Robot Golf (for the PlayStation VR) capture the public’s imagination along the lines of Pokemon Go?

Among the new PlayStation VR titles is 100 Foot Robot Golf. Yes, it’s giant robots playing golf. (Image: Sony)

Where might these breakout hits originate? Forester believes the company to watch in VR and AR is Snap Inc., the parent of Snapchat, which is scheduled to go public sometime in 2017.

“I think Snapchat is going to dominate the AR space,” said Forester. “Snapchat is already in the culture.”

He believes the hit software titles are the final piece in the VR puzzle.

“The technology is here,” said Forester. “It’s in our pockets. It’s in our web browser. You can type in a web address and have a full VR experience – right now, today. It’s here, we’re just not using it.”

If virtual reality becomes the everyday communications and entertainment tool envisioned by Facebook and Snapchat, the data center industry will be in building mode for some time to come.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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