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How do you stream virtual reality?

streaming virtual reality2015 is shaping up to be the year virtual reality finally finds its way into the mainstream. What is virtual reality? It’s kind of like a 3D movie, only better. Instead of wearing glasses, you have to put on a headset that covers your eyes and looks rather unattractive to anyone looking at you. But you won’t notice that because you’ll be visiting some other place and feeling as if you’re actually there (not just 3D gimmicks!).

A company called Oculus has been busily working on perfecting the technology and making it cheap enough for the average consumer. Their product, the Oculus Rift, is just one of six or so headsets due to be released in the next couple of years. Rumours say the Oculus Rift will cost around £200 when it comes out in early 2016. But Oculus makes another headset, the Gear VR, marketed by Samsung.

The Samsung version is already available for purchase in the US and pre-order for about £159 in the UK (though it may be available by the time you’re reading this). Though that doesn’t include the cost of the Galaxy Note 4 you’ll need for it to work. But it has some exciting things going on to make the Gear VR the headset you’ll want to own.

Milk VR is Samsung’s virtual reality content service. And according to their website, they plan on providing “new and immersive 360° videos five days a week”. These VR “videos” will include all sorts of content from music, action, sports, and “storytelling” – which I assume means movies of some sort.

But when I think of someone streaming virtual reality, I wonder, how are they going to do it? We know HD video uses a ton of bandwidth and requires a really good network connection. But wouldn’t a virtual reality video require even more bandwidth and even higher quality (or it wouldn’t feel real, right)?

The folks working on Gear VR apparently have always planned to be able to stream content – even live content. According to Richard Lawler, a company called NextVR knows all about how to take a live event and stream it in virtual reality. In an article on in January, Lawler describes a live streaming test he had using the Gear VR and NextVR’s live stream from a sunny, warm beach in California. Lawler lives in Michigan, a US state located near the Great Lakes. A very cold place in January.

But he enjoyed a sunny day at the beach where he could see and hear everything as if he were actually standing on the sand. Of course he couldn’t feel the sun, or the sand between his toes, but he could look around him, and see all the different angles as if he were there. If you think that sounds like a lot of bandwidth, it is. But not as much as you think.

He reports that NextVR used an 8 Mbps stream, at 6k resolution and 80 frames-per-second. It works well because of algorithms that stream only the area where the viewer is actually looking. So while Lawler could turn his head and look down the beach or behind him, the stream wasn’t sending all that information all the time. It just delivered the area where his head was pointing.

And while he experienced “the occasional hitch in the frame”, the experience was good enough to have him clamouring for every sporting event to now be streamed in virtual reality. And that day probably will come sooner than people might expect because the NextVR’s camera technology makes it all possible – as long as you have sufficient network bandwidth.

As this year unfolds we’ll see if virtual reality can live up to expectations, especially when it comes to streaming content over the Internet. But if you’re willing to give it a try, it sounds like it will be a pretty fun ride.

Oliver Burt

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