Virtual reality (VR) is hardly a new concept, but over the last few years, it has finally moved closer to becoming commercially viable. Many companies are investing in exciting new VR applications and rolling them out to consumers. At its best, VR provides an entirely immersive experience that transports users to a completely different location or world.
But how does virtual reality work? Although it might seem like super-technology, many of the concepts that make VR possible are quite old. At its core, VR projects three-dimensional, 360-degree video image onto a high definition screen positioned close to the user’s eyes. While there are other technologies involved to make the experience more interactive, many of the challenges associated with deploying VR at scale have to do with familiar problems: data storage and bandwidth.
While VR has incredible potential, the amount of data necessary to make it work may come as a shock to many people. The file sizes involved in any VR application are quite large, and the nature of the technology is such that the data must be constantly retrieved and edited based on user interactions. A typical interactive VR application can generate about one terabyte of data per hour. To put that in perspective, VR files will require between ten and twenty times the storage capacity used by standard HD video files, depending on the quality of the footage.
As VR is adopted more broadly, the amount of data being generated will continue to increase. According to one estimate, multi-camera VR-based media will reach about 230 exabytes by 2021. For comparison, one exabyte is roughly equivalent to one billion gigabytes. Considering that the total capacity of all the world’s data centers is estimated to be around 2300 exabytes by 2021, it might seem like the concern over VR storage is overblown. After all, if the storage capacity exists for virtual reality data usage, where is the problem?
One significant storage problem is that VR must be able to retrieve and alter data files very quickly. Any delays in data access will interrupt the user’s experience, breaking the immersion with hiccups and outright loading freezes. To work effectively, the VR experience must be seamless and completely immersive. Slow-loading or lag-heavy experiences will frustrate users and potentially pose a safety risk due to disorientation or other motion-induced conditions.
Solid state drives (SSDs) are ideally suited for VR applications because they allow for faster read/write data access. Unfortunately, SSD storage is more expensive than mechanical hard disk drives (HDDs). Most data centers and other businesses still rely on HDDs for storage because they offer far greater storage at a much lower price point. Although the cost of SSDs has been declining since the technology’s introduction, it will be some time before they supplant HDDs. This, along with a few other important factors, could have an impact on VR performance.
Unfortunately, data storage is only one part of the equation. Getting that data to where it needs to go is quite another. Bandwidth capacity will be a massive concern for VR applications. Consider, for example, that if a VR application generates one TB of data each hour, a company’s bandwidth would need to be able to handle that traffic. Taking latency into account makes deploying VR over a network even more complicated.
Edge computing framework that incorporates a network of edge data centers could be helpful in this regard. As data storage technology becomes less expensive, companies with VR applications will be able to distribute much of their video content away from the core of the network and hand it off to edge facilities that are closer to their end users. This would help to combat much of the latency imposed by distance.
Another serious challenge with VR, however, has to do with where the technology is expected to go in the future. Today’s existing infrastructure isn’t fully up to the task of delivering VR content to a broad base of users, but those demands are only going to grow in the coming years. To deliver a truly immersive experience, VR needs to run on the highest quality displays possible, especially since the screen sits so close to the user’s eyes.
A typical 1080p display is adequate, but far from ideal. Today’s leading VR applications utilize more detailed 4k displays, but 8k displays are already becoming available. At the moment, not much video footage is being shot in such high resolution, but when it does begin to happen, it will create an even bigger challenge for network infrastructure.
Virtual reality data storage concerns are a real and significant challenge for the data center industry. As more companies roll out VR applications to consumers, they will need data center partners capable of accommodating the massive storage and network demands that VR data will place on their existing infrastructure. By laying the groundwork now, data centers can start preparing themselves to deliver the increased bandwidth and storage needed to make fully immersive VR experiences possible.