Why Augmented Reality needs FTTP to realise its true potential

June 2019: Seeing is believing. Yet in the case of Augmented Reality (AR), another emerging cutting-edge technology set to transform our lives, only if the right infrastructure exists.

Seeing is believing. Yet in the case of Augmented Reality (AR), another emerging cutting-edge technology set to transform our lives, only if the right infrastructure exists.

For the uninitiated, AR fuses our physical and digital realms: virtual 3D elements are overlaid onto our real world. Real-life graphics once reserved for the sole enjoyment of science fiction filmmakers can now be observed directly with our own eyes in real life or captured via a video camera. As the well-worn Simpsons quote goes, what a time to be alive.

AR has the potential to disrupt a kaleidoscope of sectors and markets, from gaming and the traditional workplace through to education, healthcare, retail, and tourism. In contrast, its ‘rival’ Virtual Reality (VR) plunges users into simulated environments, but with no sensory input. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg believes AR won’t evolve from its current infancy to full mainstream adoption until 2022, but by then the combined AR and VR market will already be worth US$179 billion, according to ABI Research.

However, this estimation is predicated on the assumption that most homes and businesses will have access to high bandwidth and low latency broadband. In other words, ubiquitous uptake of FTTP (Fibre-To-The-Premises) ultrafast full fibre to receive symmetrical, seamless and reliable speeds of 1,000Mbps and beyond. This requires the ripping up of knackered old Victorian, copper-based infrastructure – the creaking backbone of so-called ‘Superfast fibre’.

This belated overhaul is being spearheaded across the East Anglian countryside, using millions of pounds of private investment without dipping into the public purse, by County Broadband, to help redress the digital divide and lift the UK’s historically low benchmark for acceptable broadband to parity, at least, with the rest of the world.

“My friend who has just emigrated to rural Thailand has a better data rate than I currently manage in rural Essex,” AR expert Dr Adrian Clark, a Reader in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex, tells County Broadband.

When asked if FTTP really is the key to unlocking the true potential of AR, he said: “FTTP will always win in applications that require large amounts of data to be downloaded. If the application needs low-latency interaction with remote software, which is often the case with shared VR and sometimes AR, then I suspect FTTP will also win.”

Research by Frontier estimates bandwidth requirements for AR/VR to range from 79Mbps and 253Mbps by the end of the next decade. This is beyond the reach of Superfast. This exceeds 300Mbps just five years later and stretches to over 1,500Mbps by 2050.

Clearly, in addition to wired networks, the potential of AR can be harnessed wirelessly via 5G coverage – underpinned by a full fibre infrastructure as mobile masts to which our phones connect rely on the wired cabling to create connections. Broadband engineers use AR in devices out in the field to visualise where pipes and cables will run underground. In retail, consumers can visualise new sofas from the comfort of their very own sofas.

But what about those other sectors, such as business, education and tourism? In gaming, Pokémon Go was a huge worldwide hit in 2017 but was limited in scope and scale by 4G.

As Ofcom described in a recent report on ultrafast broadband, if VR/AR were introduced in games such as World of Warcraft, a large number of multiple, real-time, simultaneous realities would have to be rendered. The report said: “VR/AR ideally requires a user throughput of several hundred Mbit/s. Moreover, latency should be less than one millisecond and high reliability is necessary to provide a smooth action-reaction experience.”

“(AR gaming and outdoor leisure activities) has the potential to be big,” Dr Clark predicts. “I suspect there is a potential market for people who are housebound to get ‘out and about’ with a person wearing a camera. For example, the housebound person could be toured around a National Trust site, watching the live video feed and telling the person with the camera where to go and what to look at.”

He and his students recently developed a tour guide system around some of Colchester’s Roman sites – showing how they would have looked in antiquity. “The viewpoint of the buildings changed correctly as users moved their head and walked around.”

In business, virtual videoconferencing has been trialled in the workplace but tiny rooms have yet to become interactive meeting spaces or conference rooms filled with holograms. Could that change with FTTP-backed AR headsets?

“High-performance networking allows a much greater sense of realism to be achieved,” Dr Clark adds. “This may turn out to be a killer app – certainly a vast improvement on travelling into and back from London for a meeting. This also benefits both social interactions, for example grandchildren in Australia, and business.”

Skype, games consoles and retail catalogues are likely safe for now. But as user demand grows, and the UK joins the rest of the world with a full fibre infrastructure, the low-hanging fruit of fully immersive and transformative technology like AR will be too good to refuse.