Virtual reality is upon us. The selfie has given way to the "surroundie", showing a panoramic 360-degree view of people and their surroundings. This is a sure sign of changing consumer expectations.
Demand for VR products might be in its early stages but it is already relatively strong, and growing. Last year, VR goggles topped many Christmas lists. They were used by contestants in the UK version of The Apprentice. From gaming to multi-camera systems for recording 360-degree views, consumers want existing technology pushed beyond its current capabilities to create ever more immersive VR experiences. Can the Internet cope with the next phase of content - including ultra-high definition video and VR?
VR aims to reproduce highly realistic sights, sounds, and smells - in short, to recreate the feeling of life in a technologically heightened way. This is harder than it sounds. Movies and TV consist of multiple images flashed on screen in a sequence, typically at a rate of 30 frames per second. But for high-speed immersive VR, rates of 60 to 120 frames per second will be needed to deliver a life-like experience.
Film-makers are already trying to meet these rising expectations. Several VR films, such as Invasion and Giant, were screened at Cannes last year. No longer content to rely on a single viewpoint, directors assemble rigs with 16 or more cameras, giving audiences a 360-degree view. These rigs generate images at 300 megabits per second, more than 10 times the typical requirement for a high-definition film.
In addition to VR, many other new technologies will increase society's dependence on future networks that transport bits and bytes across the Internet: Cloud computing, online education, remote healthcare delivery, 3D printing, driverless cars, industrial robots - the list goes on. Each of these categories involves transporting huge amounts of sensor, image and 3D data.
Historically, telecoms companies have made the investments necessary for the network to keep pace with advances in technology. Even now, telcos are developing ways to help the network cope with increased traffic. These include fifth-generation mobile (5G), new data compression algorithms, more efficient use of spectrum, and other strategies to ensure that video and other data arrive at their destination as quickly as possible.
But Internet-based video services consume a high proportion of the network for content delivery without investing to increase capacity. Pretty soon, a new approach will be needed - one which acknowledges that innovations in network operating models are just as important as innovative content and digital services.
Whatever new operating models ultimately emerge, society must ensure that the network is not overwhelmed by traffic, whether it be VR games or other content. Ensuring the unobstructed flow of digital data is crucial to maintaining global economic growth. As McKinsey pointed out in a report last year, global data flows are connecting regional and national economies, while creating opportunities for nations to stimulate growth and raise living standards.
In addition, ensuring adequate network capacity will be crucial as many of the world's unconnected inhabitants come online. Currently more than half the global population - about 4b of the 7b people on earth - have no Internet connection. If even a comparatively small fraction of them come online over the next decade, the rising tide of video and other data will grow even more.
Next time you clap on a pair of VR goggles - and if you haven't already, you will soon - bear in mind that, despite its limitless feel, Internet bandwidth is a resource like any other. Unless we make the necessary investments, the networks that make up the Internet may soon be unable to cope with the flood of virtual reality and other digital traffic.
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