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CTA Bullish on AR/VR, but Challenges Remain

Aditya Kishore
1/5/2018
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New research from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) anticipates rapid growth in two Immersive Media Experiences (IME) categories, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Its upcoming US Consumer Technology Sales and Forecasts report predicts that 4.9 million units of AR/VR headsets and eyewear will be shipped in 2018, up more than 25% over 2017; and they will generate sales of $1.2 billion, up 10% year-over-year.

As the organizer of the CES 2018 event in Las Vegas that starts next week, the CTA also pointed out that AR and VR sectors will account for record exhibit space at the event, with AR's footprint growing 10% in terms of net square feet, and VR/gaming up 18% over last year.

The CTA estimates are interesting as headset penetration continues to be an important limitation in the adoption of VR. In fact, according to IME research company Digi-Capital, the dramatic growth in this sector in coming years will come from mobile AR, driven by mobile AR platforms such as Apple's ARKit, Google's ARCore and Facebook's Camera Effects.

According to Digi-Capital's research, mobile AR and computer vision/machine learning (CV/ML) are driving venture capital investment in this sector. And while the $2.5 billion invested in this sector has been spread fairly evenly across AR and VR, it's mobile AR that is the new area of focus while VR "cools." It expects that mobile AR will have an installed base of 900 million by Q4 2018, though revenues won't "really take off" until 2019.

And though Digi-Capital's figure is for global penetration, while the CTA is estimating annual sales for just the US, the difference between them is still huge. That is primarily because mobile AR does not require consumers to purchase expensive and specialized hardware.

VR faces additional hurdles, with very high bandwidth requirements. Offering a 360-degree VR video experience, with a 2K x 2K stream at 60 frames per second, will take up 68 Mbit/s per stream. To provide a truly rich, full-featured VR experience (15K x 15K at 120 fps) you will need a staggering 8 Gbit/s per stream, according to analysis conducted by the Broadband Forum.

And then there's the latency issue: Any lag between the user's movements and corresponding changes in the immersive media content will impair the user experience, and can even cause nausea. The human body's Vestibulo-Ocular Reflex (VOR) coordinates eye and head movements to stabilize images on the retina and takes approximately 7ms, according to Nokia. That's the kind of responsiveness threshold that streaming of VR content must be able to meet in order to be successful.

The CTA did mention it was bullish about the prospects for consumer-focused AR eyewear, anticipating that sales would "accelerate considerably" over the next five years. The lower cost and lighter, more comfortable requirements for AR eyewear (such as Microsoft's HoloLens) are probably an important reason for its favorable prospects.

It is still expensive, and the use cases for the device are still limited in the consumer world. But it's gaining traction in the productive video sector: Manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin are using these eyeglasses to help with training and maintenance. And they are finding that using AR helps speed production and reduce errors, compared with more traditional training methods. (See Boeing: Productive VR Cuts Training Time by 75% and Lockheed Martin: VR Is on Our Radar.)

The development of standards for this sector is very important to help develop more practical and interoperable solutions for IME. CTA's AR/VR Working Group has already developed industry definitions to help consumers understand the various flavors of IME. These include:

  • Augmented reality (AR): Overlays digitally created content into the user's real-world environment
  • Mixed reality (MR): An experience that seamlessly blends the user's real-world environment and digitally created content, where both environments can coexist and interact with each other
  • Virtual reality (VR): Creates a digital environment that replaces the user's real-world environment

The group is also working under the CTA's Technology & Standards Program on technical definitions addressing best practices for consumer experience, including MR, XR, Outside-In Tracking and Six Degrees of Freedom (6 DoF).

While the CTA is primarily focused on standardizing communication to consumers, there are a number of other bodies also looking at standards for the IME sector. These include specialized VR bodies, such as the GVRA and the VRIF, as well as the usual video SDOs such as IEEE, DVB, MPEG, etc. (See First VR Industry Guidelines Coming at CES.)

IME is an exciting sector, and VR in particular offers an incredibly rich immersive experience. But despite the CTA's optimism, there is a lot of technological development required before it can extend substantially beyond the early adopters.

— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation

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