The Big Challenge to Virtual Reality Distribution and How to Overcome It

By Barry Whitley

In recent years, virtual reality (VR) has captured the interest of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Sony, Nintendo, and Samsung. Although VR has a sixty-year history in the technology space, until recently, it evaded widespread adoption by consumers. But like any new and revolutionary technology, for all the promise it offers, it also offers a number of significant challenges. In particular, VR comes with the challenge of how to deliver such massive files over the internet.

Virtual reality describes an audiovisual, computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment. Typically facilitated by a headset, it can provide for a highly immersive and sensory-stimulating environment. This also includes 360-degree video, because it can be just as attractive to content developers as “true VR”, and the online delivery of 360-degree video faces the same distribution challenges as true VR.

The Challenge to VR Distribution

These advancements come with the one major challenge present with most, if not all, developments in the media space: an enormous increase in data production and consumption. Content providers will need platforms that support VR content and a robust infrastructure with the capacity to support massive amounts of data. Take for example streaming a 4K video at a high-dynamic range. At 60 frames per second, a 4K video can consume roughly 7GB to 10GB of data per hour. A 4K VR experience will require several times that bandwidth; and even sub-UHD VR content will still require between 6K and 8K. That’s a lot of data. Apart from the mere challenge of transporting such large volume data, VR content providers also need to overcome issues related to latency, quality and reach, which may need be addressed at one or more stages in the delivery process (i.e. at the origin and during transporting, processing, and rendering).

The Solution to VR Distribution

Each of these issues can be mitigated simply by partnering with the right CDN (Content Delivery Network). At a basic level, our CDN dramatically reduces latency and improves quality by caching files at strategically located Points of Presence (PoPs) across our expanding global, high-speed network. Latency describes the delay between a request to a server and the subsequent transfer to the user. The distance between the user and the origin (or data source) is a key determinant in the length of that delay. Users too far from that origin, and mobile network users, in particular, could easily experience a few seconds of load time without the right CDN.

The Key to VR Adoption and Distribution

Mobile is a major key widespread VR adoption because it is the most accessible way to for current consumers to adopt VR. It allows them to view VR content on devices they already own, with the purchase of headset (which can be inexpensive). Because of the low risk/investment, mobile will be the entry point for the vast majority of VR adopters in the coming years. This means your content delivery strategy will need to take into account the specific challenges of delivering dynamic content to mobile users, which can often be more complex than delivering content to computers, consoles, and other non-mobile devices. If your users experience lag or latency, the content will perform poorly and negatively impact your bottom line. You need to allow users to access content from infrastructure that is close to them, cutting the distance between the content and the user and providing a higher quality experience. Additionally, high throughput and speed are absolutely necessary for simulating a comfortable and realistic online VR experience, as it enables quality, uninterrupted playback.

On our CDN, traffic is handed off directly to the last mile provider approximately 95% of the time in Europe and 85% of the time in the United States. By operating a private backbone peered with more than 2,600 providers and 28,000 ASN routes, we’re able to control the content delivery path from the CDN servers directly to the last mile. The result is fewer hops and faster throughput, delivering the flawless, high-quality viewing critical to the VR experience.

The Promise of VR

Originating in the fifties, VR was a technology well ahead of its time. The concept and promise of VR have endured, but its technological shortcomings have long prevented it from living up to its true potential. Despite brief popularity in the late-80s to mid-90s, it was not until just a few years ago that the technological means required to overcome VR’s crude beginnings and secure the hope of lifelike immersion became available. Estimates now put the value of the VR industry at more than $5 billion dollars and project that more 25 million VR headset units will be sold by 2018. While many of the biggest movers in and out of the tech world are investing massive amounts of resources into VR technology and content, distribution is one of the key technical implications and challenges to overcome before many others can move in.

The promise of closing your eyes in the middle of Times Square and being transported in instant to another dimension is tantalizing, but only if the experience is smooth and fast. The honking and humming of busy city streets morph into the soothing sound of waves crashing against the shore and a gentle breeze blowing across your skin. Then, you open your eyes to a barely visible sun against the backdrop of a cotton candy sky. It's the kind of immersive experience that has become a reality for game developers, entertainment companies and advertisers alike. Virtual Reality is changing the internet and more VR content is being developed every day, but mass-market adoption and success are impossible without an effective, reliable and scalable content delivery strategy. Our dream of teleporting to some far off land, real or imagined, may be closer than we think. Some argue that VR is no more than a passing fad. Yet, a number of industry experts point to major, ongoing investments by major tech firms and sustained interest from consumers as indicators that VR is here to stay. We can safely say that VR is at least a long-term trend, but has the potential to change our way of life. That is if the files are delivered flawlessly and efficiently.

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