VR Surge in Commercial Markets Opens New Opportunities for NSPs

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Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience that give the user an immersive feel of a virtual world.

Entities Need Network Support for Cloud-Based Solutions without Long Wait for 5G

Well ahead of any meaningful consumer service opportunities involving volumetric content, network service providers have an opportunity to facilitate surging use of virtual and other modified reality technologies in the commercial services marketplace.

While entertainment has captured most of the headlines, much of the investment in modified reality platforms and applications is driven by demand for solutions targeted to health treatment, scientific research, education, advertising, retailing, architecture, manufacturing, transportation, and government.

In fact, according to research conducted by International Data Corp., non-entertainment segments account for over 60 percent of current spending on augmented, mixed, and virtual reality (AR, MR & VR) technologies and could reach 85 percent by 2022. 

That would amount to $102 billion out of the $120 billion IDC predicts will be spent by that year on XR products and services across multiple consumer and commercial categories, representing a five-year CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 71.6 percent from the survey baseline in 2017.

That’s the high end of an average of five-year projections calculated by Deloitte from five reports issued in 2018, including IDC’s, which put the revenue forecast for the 2022-2023 timeframe in the range of $71 billion with the five-year CAGR at 55 percent. 

Whatever the actual spending turns out to be, these numbers are flashing out a message to service providers that now’s the time to equip networks with the end-to-end capacity and ultra-low latency that will be required to meet this demand.

While many applications designed for single-person engagement won’t involve network usage other than for initial downloads, it’s reasonable to assume that wherever VR emerges as a significant aspect of everyday operations in a given discipline, there will be collaborative engagements with apps that pose the same bandwidth and latency challenges found with VR in entertainment services.

With the right connectivity infrastructure in place, personnel anywhere can share ideas on design projects involving anything from nanotools to big buildings.

Or collaborators can view and debate the ramifications of different versions of a software solution; explore evidence gathered from basic research or criminal forensics; develop ads; edit games, movies and TV shows, or plan a line of attack for a game or battle, to name just some of the other possibilities.

Moreover, as noted by Research&Markets in another recent report, cloud-based VR solutions will be dominant compared to premises-based solutions. Serving rapidly fluctuating market needs in a cloud-dominated VR market will require what is often referred to as a “liquid infrastructure” with provisioning and scaling occurring on demand.

This, of course, is a big part of the evolving infrastructure envisioned for 5G networks, which, as previously reported, involve slicing capabilities and levels of bandwidth allocation capabilities that could be two years or more from implementation.

But the opportunities for service providers to get involved have begun and need not wait for 5G.

VR-Based Collaboration

Use of cloud-based solutions that can alleviate the costs and hassles of equipment while facilitating the remote collaboration capabilities that are critical to many applications are top of mind among developers of VR applications in the commercial markets.

“We’re pretty excited about remote rendering in the cloud,” says John O’Shea, head of VR & AR enterprise applications at Applied Materials, a leading supplier of solutions for materials engineering.

With the need to help Applied Materials customers train employees on operations involving big, expensive machines, VR allows the company to avoid costs and delays of bringing people to training centers in advance of actual deployments of the machines, O’Shea notes during a recent webinar discussion produced by FC Business Intelligence, a consultancy.

“What we’re doing is creating simulations we can provide for training on demand where our users are on customer sites,” O’Shea says.

“We’re seeing a lot of traction and excitement there. When we do training in VR, we have a line of people wanting to take it, whereas they don’t like going to physical training centers.”

“Learning and, more broadly, social and collaboration are what’s going to drive adoption,” says Mark Lee, a lecturer at Charles Sturt University in Australia and a board member of the international Immersive Learning Research Network.

“XR will go mainstream when social and collaboration applications reach the stage where there are sufficiently compelling reasons for people to migrate from 2D environments like video conferencing to 3D and immersive.”

As a sign of what will be doable to make VR-based collaboration more life-like, he cites a project underway at Facebook’s Reality Labs in Pittsburgh, which involves mechanisms that can sense VR users’ facial expressions and transfer them to the faces of avatars representing them in a multi-user session.

Synching up such tidbits of information into nearly instantaneous depictions of participants moving around in virtual reality is one of the challenges that can only be met over extremely low latency networks.

Support from Cisco

As evidenced by the cloud-based support for next-gen services under development at Cisco Systems, service providers’ opportunities to provide VR-optimized service support for the enterprise market are at hand, well in advance of the maturation of 5G.

Indeed, with high-capacity links over fiber already pervasive across the enterprise market, 5G in many instances will be a networking adjunct to VR-related projects, useful on occasions when participants aren’t at a fiber-connected office or at some other location that might be connected over a very high-speed HFC network.

Cisco’s initial foray into this space involves creation of a VR Private Cloud foundation for enterprise applications based on Hyperflex, Cisco’s hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI).

Here, as explained in a blog by Cisco developer evangelist Roger Dickinson, the company has teamed with app design specialist ebb3 to create an environment connecting cloud execution of certain functions with VR projects at customer locations via software-defined virtual private networks (SD-VPNs).

The Cisco VR Private Cloud platform provides highly scalable compute and networking capabilities as a foundation for collaboration involving “multiple participants seamlessly working together in the same VR space,” Dickinson says.

A critical component of this support involves utilization of cloud compute resources to handle much of the heavy lifting, especially when it comes to the high-end GPU capabilities needed to lend verisimilitude to the VR experience.

“The more processing power in the GPU, the more realistic your experience can be,” Dickinson notes. “VR incorporates mainly auditory and visual feedback but may also allow other types of sensory feedback like haptic” – a reference to new technology lending a tactile dimension to virtual objects.

By utilizing high-end NVIDIA Tesla v100 GPUs in conjunction with the VR-oriented GPU software provided by ebb3, Cisco Cloud VR makes it possible for enterprises to mount superior VR experiences without incurring the massive costs of putting these kinds of processors in every headset.

“We can set a policy in the SD-WAN to ensure the VR session gets the network resources it needs using application intelligence, real-time monitoring and traffic management,” Dickinson says.

“When someone puts on a HMD, the cloud allocates the resources it needs in real time,” he adds. “At other times those GPUs can be used for other tasks or applications in the workflow.”

In December, Cisco took another step toward next-gen service support with the introduction of 8000 Series routers running on the Cisco-developed Q100 chipset, which is the first microprocessor based on the firm’s Silicon One Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) architecture.

Crossing the 10 Tbps routing speed threshold, the Q100 is designed to eliminate the need for multiple network processors tied to support for VR, AI, 5G and other facets of next-gen Internet operations.

With three times the programmable adaptability performance of other programmable silicon and twice the network capacity of other high-end routing ASICs, the Q100 will allow engineers to shape support for different applications as needs arise much faster and at lower costs than before, Cisco says.

Companies said to be in active trials with the 8000 Series include Comcast, Microsoft, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Communications and others.

Given that the kinds of capabilities offered by Cisco are now in play, the question for service providers comes down to determining when preparations for services supporting enterprise VR applications will be worth their while.

It only takes a cursory look at current activities across the commercial services landscape to discern how broadly entrenched VR has already become.

Healthcare

In healthcare, the impetus behind VR utilization stems from its impact on surgery, diagnostics, pain control, injury rehabilitation, and treatment for conditions affecting mental health, including Alzheimer’s, autism, post-traumatic disorder, and schizophrenia.

As in other fields, the medical profession also uses VR for training and basic research.

When it comes to direct treatment, much of VR’s proven effectiveness is based on the fact that the brain, limited in its ability to participate in two realities, can be distracted from whatever is at issue medically through the patient’s immersion in a virtual experience that consumes the brain’s attention.

For example, VR treatment supplementing opioids in the early phases of high-pain situations has compiled a history of success stories that includes over 2,500 cases administered at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles since 2016 and treatments extending back to 2004 at nearby Children’s Hospital.

As quoted by the Washington Post, Jeffrey I. Gold, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital, says, “Virtual reality is part of our culture now, so it’s not as alien of a technology as it once was. I think people look at it as an opportunity to deliver better patient care.”

For many institutions VR pain treatment began with use of “SnowWorld,” a virtual-reality game developed by University of Washington researchers Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson in the early 2000s to mitigate burn patients’ discomfort by immersing them in a polar world where they can throw snowballs at penguins and snowmen.

Now such programs are widely available from multiple suppliers like AppliedVR, which says its VR kit with therapeutic content is in use at 100 hospitals nationwide.

Similar successes are widely reported with use of VR in treatments for mental disorders and recovery from strokes.

For example, in mental health therapy, VR is used in what is known as “exposure therapy,” where the patient is exposed to an anxiety-causing stimulus in a controlled environment to facilitate faster recovery.

Some of the most dramatic uses of VR involve surgical procedures in cases where there are complications that can be addressed through virtual modeling and exploration of the patient’s interior.

For example, surgeons at Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, using CT, ultrasound and MRI scans modeled the bodies of conjoined infant twins to plan what turned out to be a successful separation.

In another case involving a baby born with one lung and half a heart, surgeons at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami used VR to shape an operation that saved the child’s life.

The technology is gaining traction in more routine situations as well. For example, cardiovascular specialists at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. now regularly use VR visualizations to prepare for procedures to fix aneurysms and blocked arteries.

Training & Education

The health industry is also leading the way in use of VR for education and on-the-job training. In surgery, for example, VR-based training has become part of the curricula at numerous universities.

For example, at Stanford’s Salisbury Robotics Lab students work in a surgical simulation environment that uses sensors monitoring treatment of a virtual patient to enable computer analysis of their techniques.

There’s also growing use of VR to support remote learning through observation of operations performed in front of VR cameras.

The first such application occurred in early 2016 at the Royal London Hospital, where the intimate details of a hernia operation were webcast to 50,000 medical professionals, journalists, and other interested parties worldwide.

More broadly, VR is used in various physician and nursing training scenarios to help students learn anatomy, study specialized procedures like infection control, and hone their treatment skills through feedback on their performance in virtual situations.

Here again growing use of VR has spawned a health app-specific supply chain, including one company, Bioflight VR, that supports automated rendering of MRI and CT data in virtualized models of real patients’ anatomies.

Beyond health training, VR has captured wide interest as an education tool in a wide range of academic fields at all grade school and college levels as well as for business training purposes in multiple fields.

So far, applications are taking hold faster in business and health than they are in academia, where costs of head gear and cultural resistance are major impediments.

But, as costs fall and VR goes into wider use, the technology could emerge as an important learning tool that puts students in one-on-one interactions with virtual mentors whose approaches to teaching and responses to student input can be individualized through use of AI.

In one of the first studies devoted to analyzing whether VR learning aids recall, University of Maryland researchers discerned a nearly 10 percent improvement in learning by students using VR compared to students studying the same material without headsets.

The more important driver behind educators’ interest, however, is likely to be the prospects for augmenting learning through the individualized mentoring made possible by VR in today’s crowded classrooms.

Meanwhile, VR-based training is cropping up with increasing frequency across the business world. For example, Walmart used VR to prepare employees for Black Friday sales in 2017 by immersing them in a virtual environment with big crowds and long lines.

In Houston, people looking to work in the HVAC sector can get VR-based training in the trade at the Training Center of Air Conditioning and Heating.

A lot of what had been VR training involving large facilities, like the simulated flight centers used in commercial and military aviation, is moving to platforms that rely on use of headsets to make learning more portable with availability to more people at one time.

The emergence of platforms supporting 6DoF (six degrees of freedom, which is to say, movement in all directions) has made the headset approach more palatable in situations where trainees have to move around, as in the case of the 200 law enforcement agencies that are reported to be using the VR training environment supplied by VirTra Systems.

Another firm, LEVRS, Inc., is vying to grab market share in this space with a headset-based system.

As the technology-driven need for continuous workforce training intensifies, VR offers an alternative to allocating physical space and real teachers in situations where online coursework isn’t applicable.

And even where the online option is viable, the interactive possibilities of VR enable more realistic approaches to honing communications skills. 

In a recent survey of marketing and sales professionals, the online training site HubSpot Academy found that 57 percent of respondents were interested in learning something new in a VR environment.

Design, Research & Everyday Business Operations

VR is gaining wide traction in business, government and institutional operations as the logical extension of the computerized simulation techniques that already pervade economic life.

With the allocation of resources to the development of volumetric renderings of objects that can be explored in immersive 3D space, entities can vastly improve the effectiveness of computer simulation.

Ever more commercially available platforms developed for specific fields are coming into play to automate the transformation of blueprints into 3D computer models and, from there, to immersive VR simulations.

The role VR plays in Airbus aircraft design offers an example of the impact technology has on the industrial world.

Using what’s known as RAMSIS (Realistic Anthropological Mathematrical System), Airbus is able to create immersive 3D renderings of aircraft cabin designs that allow developers to better understand ergonomic implications of their concepts and to review component installation and maintenance processes.

Boeing has employed VR for designing and simulated testing of aircraft, utilizing specially trained development teams to look at issues related to human comfort in the preproduction phase.

VR is prominent in auto design as well. For example, Ford, which has long used VR technology in some design work, recently began using Oculus Rift headset technology to expand the role of VR in reviewing every facet of proposed designs down to the minute details.

VR has also become an important tool for attaining customer approval on projects in advance of production.

For example, VR platforms like one built by Iris VR are used by architects not just for their own internal work but also to provide clients with immersive walkthroughs before moving to construction.

Beyond its usefulness in internal workflows, VR is also becoming a major tool in marketing and sales. For example:

  • Swedish furniture giant Ikea has set a course that other retailers are beginning to emulate by making its virtual showrooms available for headset owners to explore from home.
  • Lowe’s has implemented “Holoroom” environments using an app developed by Marxent that creates a virtual environment for customers to view what a room using various products from the store would look like.
  • Audi is using technology supplied by ZeroLight to allow showroom visitors to fashion and examine close at hand the accessories for a new car and then take it for a spin through a virtual landscape.
  • Tourist destinations and real estate brokers are making use of specially designed apps like the “Wild Within” VR experience designed by Oculus for British Columbia to give consumers an advance look at the real things.

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