IEEE 802.11ad: The future in virtual reality (VR) systems

One of the biggest application stories hitting the consumer tech and the national press over the past year has been VR. It appears that the Oculus Rift headset – arguably the best known – received over 29,000 items of coverage in October alone and consumer interest has only increased since then.

In its 2016 CES summary Cnet wrote “Everyone wanted a piece of virtual reality at this year’s CES”, and it was not alone in that statement. Similar headlines abounded at IFA 2016 too, with Mashable declaring “smart appliances and virtual reality took center stage.”

Since that date consumer interest in VR has almost quadrupled, with the topic generating twice as much interest as the internet of things.

Looking at WiGig (IEEE 802.11ad) in these systems, we’re already seeing strong interest from system developers looking to lighten the headsets and deliver the great graphics and experience needed for the new technology to take off. Here at Blu Wireless, we see interest in VR headset vendors from China alone and it’s not hard to see why. This is a place where low power consumption and high throughput is required, with WiGig enabling both cable replacement and the multi-gigabit data rates needed to support low latency video transmission. It’s hard to miss the rise of the general VR market that is taking place.

So, with this sudden rise in consumer interest, coupled with our own experience, I suspect T3 Magazine’s CES 2017 preview piece will be proved right for the statement: “2016 was a big year for virtual reality and augmented reality, and 2017 looks likely to follow the trend.” With CES starting in less than three weeks we thought we’d look at some of the leading systems and how WiGig will play a key role in the technologies evolution.

Last month alone, the Oculus Rift headset received over 29,000 media mentions – according to the coverage tracking site Meltwater. And additional devices like the HTC Vive Pre, PlayStation VR and Xbox One VR are also all now available. The Sulon Q, which launches next year, is also trying to go wireless, but is doing so by putting as much power into the headset, which makes for a bulkier device but frees the user. Personally, we’d say that external processing and low-latency video transmitted wirelessly is the right way.

VR systems are still wired

These systems are undoubtedly spectacular.

Probably the best known is the Rift, which was first released in March of this year, following a 2012 Kickstarter campaign and 2014 Facebook acquisition. It’s regarded as the first high-end VR system, with Wired commenting it was “leading the charge into super powered, PC-driven immersion”, albeit it has now been followed by the HTC Vive and Playstation VR. Reviews are regularly 4 and 5* with the interaction of 3D sound and video playing a key part of this.

And the games are starting to come through too, not just on the likes of Sony’s PlayStation VR, but on the Rift too, with Xbox announcing a deal last week that would see its games immediately available for the Rift.

But at the same time, there are evolutions to come if the user is to be freed from the PC, on which these run. As Wired put it in a review of the Rift (and the same can be said for now of virtually all VR systems: “[it] isn’t a self-contained device, it’s a peripheral—and it won’t work with just any computer.”

This in itself isn’t a bad thing. The Blu-ray player is a peripheral for the TV (or vice versa). The smartwatch or heart rate monitor is a peripheral for the phone. And using it as a peripheral means you can remove weight from the system, which is vital in a wearable piece of technology that will, no-doubt, be used hours on end.

The difficulty is that the systems are about a more natural immersive experience, and nothing pulls you out of an all-immersive game like an HDMI / USB cable dragging you back, or knocking the PC off the desk, when you walk too far.

If we look at specs, the Rift has a 2160×1200 resolution per AMOLED screen, with a 90 Hz refresh rate and connects to a PC with recommended specifications of at least an Intel i5-4590 CPU, Nividia GTX 970 / AMD R9 290, 8 GB RAM, an HDMI 1.3 video output and three USB 3.0 ports plus one USB 2.0.

This is coupled with 360 degree sensors requiring video and games to be rendered quickly according to changes and transmitted. Albeit the devices can make use of asynchronous space warp features, which renders a game at half the minimum frames per second and uses, as Digital Trends put it “clever guess work to make it feel like it’s running at the typical 90 FPS”.

The other top end devices match these specs closely. The PlayStation VR – which connects via HDMI and USB to a PlayStation rather than a PC – has a higher frame rate (120 fps) than the Rift. The Vive requires a PC with slightly more powerful graphics card and needing an HDMI 1.4 port / DisplayPort 1.2, albeit demanding just one USB 2.0 port.

Either way, this is a lot of video that needs to be rendered on the fly, and data that needs to be transmitted, hence Wi-Fi hasn’t been used to transmit from the TV.

There is however, one exception that proves the rule, and that is the Sulon Q. This will launch next year, with specs already available. The device is taking a different approach and trying to put all the hardware onto the device itself, building in an AMD FX-8800P processor with Radeon R7 graphics card. This makes it the first tetherless VR headset.

As already alluded to, the challenge this will have is weight. The Oculus Rift is 470g, although according to Wired’s review “the weight is distributed well and feels much, much lighter than that”. The HTC Vive is 85g heavier, without cables. At 610g, the PlayStation VR is 55g on top of that. Can a system with it all built in be light enough to be used?

And this leads nicely to WiGig.

In October, the Wi-Fi Alliance certified the WiGig (IEEE 802.11ad) standard. The technology, which is already making its way into systems like handsets and TVs, delivers multi-gigabit speeds and one of its original target markets was as an HDMI cable replacement technology (albeit this list of applications now greatly exceeds this).

Using the 60 GHz space, and combines this 14 GHz of bandwidth with exceptionally low interference levels and exceptionally low latencies. Putting its throughput into perspective, a typical HD film, according to Strategy Analytics, would take just 12.1s to transmit between devices, the same movie but in 4K would take just 2.3 minutes.

VR is a place where low power consumption and high throughput is required, with WiGig enabling both cable replacement and the multi-gigabit data rates needed to support low latency video transmission.

We’ll be at CES next month, to discuss a VR or any other highly data-demanding project please get in touch (