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Building networks fit for AR and VR

The recent launch of the Apple Vision Pro has predictably stirred up the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) scene with consumer interest potentially leading to the launch of a new era of “spatial computing” — Apple’s take on the technology that underpins AR/VR.

The AR and VR market is expected to generate revenue of USD 38.6 bn in 2024, with the market likely to grow at an annual rate of 10.77 percent, according to Statista. AR and VR technologies offer several unique use cases, changing the way we look at education and training, gaming, and real-time collaboration, among others, in different industry verticals.

However, these exciting use cases are only possible if the underlying networks are designed to support the delivery of ultra-fast and extremely low-latency experiences at scale. One just has to recall how the popularity of the AR-based game Pokemon Go was impacted by substandard network experience in India a few years ago.

To transmit real-time 3D content, immersive applications using AR and VR technologies require ultra-low latency and high bandwidth. Any delay in transmission not only impacts the user experience but can also lead to motion sickness. Subpar experience can also prevent service providers from maximizing the revenue potential of these technologies.

However, when the traditional network architecture is not designed for this kind of usage, this may lead to an experience characterized by high latency, lag, and subpar visual quality.

What kind of networks do AR and VR technologies need?
The performance of devices like Apple Vision Pro depends on the speed of the broadband connection as well as network congestion at the time of use. It is fair to say that most AR and VR applications would be used in indoor environments, but some of them, like Pokemon Go, depend on 5G and 5G networks in outdoor environments.

If you have a robust home broadband connection or reside in a place with a good 5G coverage, then you can enjoy a seamless AR and VR experience. However, there are lots of potential Vision Pro customers that aren’t in this situation.

In 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) revised the minimum wired broadband speed to 2 Mbps, up from 512 Kbps. Even so, this speed is unfortunately not enough to deliver on the promise of AR and VR experience, especially considering that several people may be using the same network at any given time and place.

That may be changing. Fast forward to today, the top two Indian Communications Service Providers (CSPs), Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, started offering 5G services in October 2022. Together, the two service providers claim to have more than 100 million 5G users.

Three elements for building networks for immersive experiences
The demand for high-bandwidth and low-latency AR and VR use cases is growing, so it is not surprising that CSPs in India have already started investing to make networks faster, and smarter, and bring the cloud closer to the user.

Faster means improvements in things like the fibre optic infrastructure that carries data back to big data centres for processing, with technology that is capable of moving 1.6 terabits per second per wavelength. It also means improvements to your home Wi-Fi router, and deploying more of those faster 5G stand-alone networks for faster networks whenever we are on the move.

Smarter means integrating Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and advanced analytics into networks. These technologies will allow the network to anticipate end-user demands and adjust without human interaction. They will allow the network to be more adaptive to changing demands placed upon it.

Closer means building out the “edge” of the cloud, where we may need up to five times more data centres than are available today to process information closer to where it is being generated, i.e., closer to you and me. Of course, closer also means closing the digital divide and spreading advanced networks to all corners of the globe.

Lots of work has already been done in the industry to address these technical challenges, and the focus now is on deploying more adaptive networks as quickly and effectively as possible. There has also been a great deal of conscious investment to close the digital divide and increase access to high-performance networks, especially in remote areas, by governments (though of course there is still more to be done).

In short, we have the network technology to support immersive AR and VR now, but it is not yet widely deployed. The main way networks can be improved is by making high-performance, lightning-fast connectivity accessible to anyone who wants to don a headset and have an immersive cloud-connected experience.

AR and VR have the potential to transform how we learn, work, play and interact. Some of the biggest and most innovative technology companies in the world are now players in the mixed-reality headset market, and that level of innovation is incredibly exciting. However, for these technologies to truly take off and become norms in the way the smartphone has, we must remember the underlying network is integral to their ultimate success.

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