There's a Reverse Cloud on the Horizon
Anyone involved in augmented and virtual reality will tell you that the biggest connectivity issue for AR/VR development isn't bandwidth; it's latency. The problem is the massive computer processing that has to take place between the user interface and any source of interactive content. When that processing takes place far away, it introduces lag time into the experience. While high-performance networks can mitigate that lag, the simplest way to solve for higher performance is to move processing power closer to the end user.
There are a couple of different ways to address AR/VR compute requirements. As Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) showed at CES in partnership with Osterhout Design Group (ODG), it's possible to embed significant processing power into a thin, lightweight mixed reality headset. However, no matter how sophisticated the hardware, there are still performance limitations inherent in working with a compact wireless device.
The next option is to tether an AR/VR headset to a nearby, top-of-the-line computer. That solves the problem of both latency and computing power, but it means users have less freedom of movement because the headset is attached to a wire.
A combination of high-powered video compression and next-generation networking technology should make an in-home, wireless mixed reality experience commercially feasible in the future. This would mean still having a high-performance computer on hand, but would get rid of the wire to the headset -- something companies like chip maker Celeno Communications and compression specialist NGCodec are already working on.
In the long term, however, the best solution for meeting latency and computing requirements will be to combine compression and networking advancements with a computing source that lives near, but not inside, a single user's home, thereby getting rid of the need for every person to own significant processing power.
In other words, the industry needs to move in the direction of cloud-based mixed reality technology, but where the cloud is localized rather than housed in a faraway data center.
"This whole concept of a cloud being consolidated up and a few of these being scattered around the country doesn't work," CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney told Light Reading in a recent interview. "So I think we're going to see almost this switch of architecture to go to this 'reverse cloud,' where I take the cloud and I chop it up, and I disperse it and I put it as close to the consumers [as possible]."
McKinney calls the concept a reverse cloud, but another way of looking at the idea is to see the distribution of processing power as a way of bringing the cloud closer to home. Other industry terms for the concept include edge computing and fog computing.
Moving the cloud has big implications for service providers and how they'll need to architect their networks in the future. And in fact, the advantages of distributed networks are popping up everywhere, from supporting advanced wireless and wireline broadband connections to enabling larger video libraries and higher-resolution video delivery. The AR/VR experience is just one more application pushing networks in the same distributed direction, and not just for bandwidth, but for computing power.
As many have now pointed out, the need for localized infrastructure gives cable companies a competitive advantage. (See Nokia: Why Web Scale Alone Can't Win.)
Cable operators already claim a significant footprint in last-mile wireline connectivity, and there's an ongoing push to minimize even the coaxial part of that footprint as several cable companies drive fiber deeper into their networks. The nodes that cable companies install as part of that process could theoretically also carry a new computing load.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to bring that near-compute, but we think that that is where cable has a unique play because cable has this unbelievably large, massive real estate footprint," says McKinney. "If you think of every node that's built into the network all across the country, and if you can put a little bit of compute into every one of those nodes to deliver a better, near-local experience, that becomes something."
To be clear, cable companies aren't putting compute power into nodes today, but there's nothing to say they couldn't upgrade those electronics in the future.
"I wouldn't say that today the near-compute would be something that you could get a return on," McKinney acknowledges, but the day will come when the economics make sense, and it could put cable in a very interesting position as the augmented and virtual reality industry develops.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading