The future is finally here.
YouTube Inc. announced today that its Android app now supports virtual reality (VR), a way of experiencing video that makes it look like the action is happening all around you. The news has two different parts. First, users can view videos that were specifically designed for the VR experience. Second, existing YouTube videos can be screened through a filter of sorts designed to simulate VR viewing.
Probably not coincidentally, Google, which owns YouTube, is also kicking off a partnership with The New York Times today to bring VR to NYT stories. The newspaper is publishing select stories with a VR component and making the content available on an NYT VR app. As part of promoting the new feature, Google is shipping a Google Cardboard headset to New York Times subscribers.
So what does all of this mean from a service provider perspective? It means the tipping point for early-stage VR is close, and the demands of the experience are going to put pressure on service provider networks. The issue isn't so much about bandwidth, although experts put the required bandwidth for a VR stream anywhere between roughly 8 Mbits/s and 16 Mbits/s, which is a 2x to 4x increase over a Netflix stream today. Rather, the problem will come with the latency requirements for virtual reality. As technology analyst Antonin Lapiche from Orange Silicon Valley told Light Reading in the spring, fiber connections are the best option for VR apps, which typically require sub 60-millisecond latency to be successful. (See Gigabit Cities: I've Seen the Future.)
The other bottleneck for VR is likely to come on WiFi connections. Even with fiber to the home, broadband is usually accessed at far less than peak speeds because users connect from their devices over WiFi. WiFi performance can drop precipitously when multiple devices are sharing a network; when older-model smart phones and tablets cut into network efficiency; and when users move out of ideal range of a wireless access point.
Unfortunately for broadband providers, many users still blame their ISPs when WiFi performance is sub-optimal. Virtual reality is one of the applications that's going to tax performance further and ultimately heap more blame on broadband operators despite their still-limited control over the WiFi user experience.
The future is here, and the future needs better broadband. Virtual reality and Google are making sure of it.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading