Over the last few years, one of the biggest questions looming over the discussion of VR has been user adoption: "When will VR become a viable platform?" Development of VR hardware has advanced significantly, service platforms have been built around that hardware to deliver content to users, and yet it still seems that VR is a cumbersome (and expensive) endeavor.
This problem is especially acute for industries like AEC which rely heavily on visual content to deliver experiences and information. Professionals in these industries understand the symbiotic relationship between tools and design--that each has great potential to drive the development of the other--and so the problem for us is not just the experience of using the hardware, but the limitations that currently poses for our ability to design and communicate our ideas.
In tandem with this, the AEC industry continues to push towards ever higher levels of interaction and fidelity through visual mediums. VIATechnik has witnessed this drive first-hand through many of our projects. One in particular--our collaboration with Virgin Hyperloop One--incorporates scales of simulation beyond most traditional applications: anything from small bolts and wires to the entire surrounding topographic region. As these applications of 3D rendering become more dominant in the AEC industry, the scales of simulation will become more advanced and intricate as well, requiring greater degrees of computational power and sensory experience.
Beyond the “Trough of Disillusionment”
The emergence of Virtual Reality (VR) has been able to sustain this increase rendering demand to a point. It has crossed over from obscure niche technology to mainstream applications, and there is no longer a question of whether it will become viable; instead, we must ask what it will look like when it does. We can look to three particular developments in the near future which suggest that VR accessibility will become significantly more seamless, allowing the medium to meet these demands: First, networked VR environments will become much more commonplace, allowing users to collaborate remotely. Second, these environments will begin migrating to the cloud, reducing the need for powerful, on-site computation. And third, the deployment of 5G network technologies will increase data transfer and reduce latency, eliminating many of the noticeable limitations of streaming applications.
Environments Begin to Talk
Those users who have set up a high-end VR experience are familiar with some of the existing constraints: in addition to the cost of workstations powerful enough to run VR applications, most traditional VR setups require the use of a proprietary tethered headset. Further, much of the work done in the AEC industry requires high levels of visual fidelity, which in turn requires significant amounts of data storage and throughput, meaning that the headset cannot be easily untethered from this workstation.The obvious restriction here is mobility - a few feet of cable and a room-scale boundary does not permit much of a spatial experience, and removing this barrier requires the purchase of additional Wi-Fi adapter hardware. Moreover, only one user at a time can be “in” a VR space, limiting our ability to use a shared experience to communicate. Many products currently on the market have taken a first step to alleviating this problem by allowing the local environment to communicate over the internet with other users. Like a multiplayer video game, each player owns and runs a copy of the game on their system while certain information is coordinated across the internet to create a shared experience. This enables remote VR collaboration with one big caveat - each end user still needs the requisite costly hardware to run the VR application locally. In other words, the environment is more accessible but the interface with that environment is not.
The Data Center Is Your Platform
New advancements in the gaming industry mitigate this problem through cloud-based streaming. Under this model, VR environments--which would ordinarily be run locally on the user’s computer--are instead hosted on powerful cloud platforms. These platforms will offer both high-end graphics processing as well as the ability to scale with users. The end user merely needs a headset that can stream the images and audio from the server. Put another way, like visiting a website, the end user’s workstation only needs to connect to the virtual environment, not contain it. Stadia, Google’s new cloud-based gaming platform, proposes this exact model through a subscription service to subvert the traditional purchase of expensive gaming consoles and game titles. Nearly any modern workstation can participate in Stadia by streaming games from the cloud and players can connect from anywhere at a fraction of the cost of a traditional console and game library. It is not a stretch, then, to think that we will begin to see the same standard emerge in AEC applications.
5G: When Networks Become Invisible
For VR to reach peak adoption, it must be able to be accessed by and streamed to numerous mobile devices at high resolution with ease. The introduction of 5G connectivity across mobile broadband is expected to solve this by dramatically increasing bandwidth while shrinking latency. This is a crucial step in eliminating the framerate loss and input latency that can cause negative physiological reactions in users. Currently, some desktop and mobile applications can achieve this, and with the proliferation of connected devices coming with 5G technology, we are sure to see further strides in this area. From the user’s perspective, the typical visceral aberrations of networked applications--things like input lag, slow download speeds, and buffering glitches--will seem to disappear.
The maturity of a platform can be measured by how seamlessly it integrates into our daily lives. While several of these friction points still remain, doubts about VR’s potential have largely been answered: It is now clear that VR and other Mixed Reality interfaces will dominate as the next platform for visually-driven content. The question is no longer “will it be viable” but rather “what will viable look and feel like”. Looking to our existing devices and the advancements that have been made in connectivity, we can begin to understand that VR will become part of this family, offering users the ability to experience content and share information across multiple platforms. Content distribution and collaboration services will be built with seamlessness as a priority, driving greater numbers of users into their ecosystems which will in turn provide the demand for content and application marketplaces. For the AEC industry, then, what is left for us to consider is how we prepare for this future: What will we do with these new capabilities and what impact do we hope to have that was not possible before?