Virtual reality has enjoyed both technological advances and widespread adoption in recent years. Nevertheless, the birth of VR as a commercial success will be marked by the cutting of its umbilical cord. Thanks to the innovation of a handful of technology companies, the tether that is the bane of high-end VR headsets is about to be cut asunder.
Why so optimistic? Considering the technology revealed at the 2017 Game Developers Conference (GDC), and efforts by big name companies, we have every right to be. Wireless VR gear is very nearly on the shelf, and a fervor of VR development is fueling speculation on who will get there first.
In this article, we will look at emerging wireless virtual reality technology, and we will see who’s doing what to make it happen sooner than you might think.
Tethered Versus Mobile VR
But, you might ask, isn’t VR already wireless? In a couple of words, yes and no.
Although smartphone-based headsets, such as the Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR, and Zeiss One Plus offer a true wireless VR experience, they cannot currently match the performance of high-end gear such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It is the performance models that keep users chained to their desktop PCs, and which desperately need to be liberated by wireless technology.
As smartphone makers ramp up their onboard technology to provide a more-powerful VR platform, high-end VR headset makers strive to maintain their performance edge while becoming mobile, too.
The Wireless VR Challenge
So why hasn’t someone done something about this before now? In a world of IoT, where even refrigerators send and receive data over wireless connections, it is a fair question.
The problem lies in the enormous amount of data that is required to drive the VR display. And as VR content increasingly becomes high-definition, the problem only gets worse. To achieve smooth action with low latency, any wireless system for virtual reality must have transfer rates exceeding 4Gbps, and preferably exceeding 5.2Gbps. With the current 802.11ac wifi standard capable of a maximum 1.3 Gbps, you can see the problem.
Wireless VR Technology
If PC-powered VR headsets are going to ever be set free of their desktop moorings, we need a new wireless technology to make it happen. Fortunately, help is on the way.
Here is a short list of who’s doing what.
Qualcomm not only dominated the wireless VR conversations at the GDC, the chip giant had heads spinning, which is impossible to do with cables attached.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 VR Developer Kit Headset demonstrated the company’s contribution to wireless VR technology. The all-in-one wireless VR headset demonstrates what wireless VR will ultimately become, with onboard processing and built-in display. Since no PC or wireless data link are required, the challenges of overcoming latency is eliminated for all but higher-resolution applications.
Essentially, you can carry the headset with you for a cordless VR experience anywhere you go — except that you can’t. The headset is not available for retail, and is released only as a platform for developers to use in developing their own products.
The Qualcomm wireless VR headset does more than eliminate the PC, it eliminates the need for VR gloves. Onboard cameras, powered by technology from Leap Motion, track hand motion directly with surprising accuracy.
The Qualcomm developer kit does what some said could not be done. It rivals smartphone-based headsets, and threatens to outpace them, all without the need for a high-end PC. No doubt, Qualcomm’s efforts will not be wasted, as developers are certain to exploit the platform to the fullest.
The Qualcomm developer kit does not represent wireless VR perfection, but it definitely points the way.
You may have heard of Quark. If not, expect to.
Quark, which was founded in 1981 and has made a name for itself in software, has developed a prototype headset that represents yet another approach to wireless VR. Their wireless prototype utilizes an HTC Vive, and a computer board and battery, which the user wears at his or her waist. Sure, there are cables connecting the headset to the processor, but, alas, the user is free to roam about uninhibited by being anchored to a PC.
Not a Vive user? Not to worry; the system will work with all VR headsets. Yes, all.
Intel has no intention of building wireless VR headsets, but that does not mean they can’t show others how it’s done. Similar in concept to the Qualcomm headset, Intel’s Project Alloy is intended to showcase Intel’s wireless VR technology for use by headset makers.
Project Alloy combines two of Intel’s RealSense modules, along with technology that Intel acquired with its recent acquisition of computer vision company Movidius.
Intel plans to release the development kit to software studios in Q2 2017. While that does not provide enough lead time for much in terms of holiday releases, Intel has something bigger up their silicone sleeves. The chip maker has already partnered with an undisclosed VR headset maker (two possibilities come to mind), with plans for a holiday release of a commercial product.
MIT has taken a different approach to achieving wireless VR. The MIT MoVR prototype system replaces the PC cable with a super-fast RF data link. Unlike standard wifi, MoVR utilizes millimeter wave technology, which operates upward of 30 Ghz. The system is built on the concept that the higher the RF frequency, the higher the data rate it can transport.
Despite having sufficient bandwidth to provide a latency-free wireless VR experience, there are problems to be overcome. The greatest challenge is simply maintaining connectivity. Extremely high frequencies may carry gobs of data, but they are easily reflected and blocked by objects. Even high humidity can affect signal reliability.
That said, MIT is confident it can overcome the inherent reliability issues. Although a useable commercial product using mm wave technology may be a ways off, MoVR is compatible with all VR headsets, which may pull funding their way.
Wireless Carriers Upping Their Game
Despite efforts to increase the processing power and speed of VR-optimized smartphones, the maximum data rates of mobile VR headsets is ultimately determined by mobile carriers. Right now, that a bad thing. Current 3G data transfer rates are generally capped at about 2 Mbps — less than half of what is needed for a truly seamless VR experience. But one way or another, that’s getting ready to change.
Carriers are working hard to increase the data rate capacity of their systems. Two standards are worth noting: 4G LTE and 5G.
In the world of mobile carrier network standards, G stands for generation. Each new standard is represented by an incremental increase over the previous standard. Even though not everyone has fully transitioned to using 4G, a significant improvement in bandwidth, called 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) is about to hit the airways. It offers a data rate of up to 100 Mbps for “high mobility” users, such as vehicles, and up 1 Gbps for “low mobility” users, such as cell phone users. While a 50-fold increase over current data transfer rates should be enough to excite even the most placid VR users, something else is coming down the pipe that will blow 4G LTE out of the air — 5G.
Officially, 5G is not slated to be released until 2020, but it is already being tested and chances are that we will see it in larger markets before 3 years. Even if 5G does not appear on a data plan near you until the target date, 4G’s 100 Mbps will provide a fast channel for whatever VR developers might throw down our way.
How AppReal-VR Can Help
Virtual reality wireless headsets have been a dream of users and developers alike. Now the dream is a reality within reach for those prepared to make it happen. But like all technological revolutions, those who capture the market will lead the way rather than falling in line with everyone else.
AppReal-VR is a technology developer committed to helping clients lead markets, rather than following them. We are experts at all things VR related, from mobile app development to gaming to whatever else you may be thinking of. Our world-class developers enable us to offer cutting-edge virtual reality solutions at outsource rates.
Virtual reality development cost less than you think.Why not call us today for a no-cost consultation?