I recently used the Samsung Gear VR headset extensively, my first long stint with the smartphone powered virtual reality rig, since I first played with it during the launch in Berlin a couple of years back. The device hasn’t changed much, but it has become consumer-centric, the content more accessible.There’s also a good reason why at the core of this virtual reality device is a smartphone: and that is because that VR content now is almost completely online, and needs to be streamed in front of your eyes.
In fact, there is consensus that smartphones will be integral to the VR experience for many years to come. While initially VR devices will be powered by smartphone screens, as the big setups will be prohibitively expensive, over the years they will also become the primary source of content. As we wait for the first phones which will natively be able to record 360-degree content — yes, I am convinced this is going to happen soon — there are already add-ons like the Samsung Gear 360 and Ricoh Theta that can record such content easily for you, to share on social networks like Facebook that already support immersive videos.
While using Gear VR I realised one thing: you need to be online all the time for the full experience. Yes, there is the option of downloading and storing content on your phone, but you will need to go online to get a better experience. This is where VR starts straining the networks. For instance, a one-minute video I shot with the Theta camera was about 200 MB, at least ten times of what it would be if shot on a good smartphone. So you will need high speed Internet streaming, and processes that handle this pressure to use VR effectively.
“VR has become a big buzzword and that is the kind of immersive experience that the young consumers in a country like India will demand,” explains Sunil Lalvani, India head of Qualcomm. Lalvani says they have seen VR emerge as a “key requirement,” for at least some smartphone manufacturers even in a market like India. “That is what Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 brings to the table,” he says about the company’s first VR-capable chip. He says it will take time for VR to trickle down to more affordable phones, even though companies like Lenovo are already testing the waters with limited experience headsets like ANT-VR.
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While VR was one of the larger themes at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, most were trying to get the better of the problem an explosion of virtual reality content will pose for the carriers. That is why there is already a lot of stress being put on 4G+, and the impending 5G era.
Tim McDonough, senior vice-president of marketing at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc, says mobile will take VR mainstream. “Mobile will certainly be the consumption platform and content creating platform for VR,” he says, adding that it is still early days with this technology. “You will see more chips with the capability as the requirements for ensuring a good experience are very high,” he adds.
At the moment, Qualcomm is among the few companies that has an understanding of VR right from the device to the network level. Senior director of marketing Peter Carson says, companies will need to look at new possibilities like carrier aggregation which lets them tap into unlicensed spectrum to offer higher data rates.
“Getting to those kinds of speeds is going to enhance experiences like VR. But the problem is how to condense this content. And with increasing dependency on the cloud for this kind of content, connectivity could end up being a bottleneck that keeps you from that content,” he explains.
Carson says the more we depend on high quality connectivity like gigabit class LTE, it will make cloud storage seem almost like mobile storage because of the speed at which you can access that storage. “Having a better pipe will help the evolution to continue, and support a wide range of entertainment content,” he says, underlining why they are trying to invest ahead of the curve.
Full review: Samsung Gear VR review: The power of the virtual
So how has the technology progressed to cope with the boom in video, and now VR, content? Carson says the new Qualcomm X16 LTE modem is already at 500 times the downloads speeds of what 3G was offering initially, and 10 times of what the first 4G devices were at.
While this modem will initially come in Wi-Fi modems, smartphones with the technology are more than a few quarters away.
However, even these unprecedented data speeds will be insufficient for the extremes of virtual reality. The Nokia Ozo spherical stereoscopic camera records 500GB of content every 45 minutes — about 11GB a minute. While Nokia is pitching this for movie production, some of this content will need to be consumed online. This is why one of the biggest contributions of VR could be moving away from volume based billing of data.