Do we need standards for virtual reality?

Interest in virtual reality is flagging among broadcasters and pay TV operators raising the prospect that it could go the same way as 3D around five years ago, which has more or less sunk without trace.

Service providers have bigger things to worry about, including the march to OTT, while VR like 3D is being seen as hitched to head sets, significant for gaming, but condemned to remain a niche for mainstream TV viewing.

But VR is bigger than 3D because it includes a number of aspects relating to immersiveness and quality that are not all confined to head sets. This is the background to the Virtual Reality Industry Forum (VRIF) which is presenting its first guidelines at CES 2018 after putting them out to public comment in September 2017. VRIF is a division of ISO (International Standards Organization) with founding members including Akamai, Arris, CableLabs, Dolby, European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Ericsson, Fraunhofer, Harmonic, Huawei, Intel, MovieLabs, Qualcomm, Sky, Sony Pictures and Verizon.

It is dedicated in the words of its president Rob Koenen to support end-to-end interoperability across the virtual reality ecosystem, from production to consumption, and to ensure a high-quality user experience.

Koenen noted that the guidelines apply equally to the closely related field of Augmented Reality, which is about enhancing existing real content rather than simulating the experience. Both can involve computer generated imagery (CGI), various forms of video projection and new communication streams.

Security is quite comprehensively covered by the first guidelines, which identify additional challenges posed by VR services. These include aspects relating to the content itself, such as control over output and navigation, as well as risks associated with new communication channels. VR services generate novel forms of return path data associated with tracking the Head Mounted display for example.

At the same time the guidelines embrace issues which could be relevant for distribution of VR services to TV screens without headsets, relating to forensic watermarking. Current watermarking implementations assume that a full frame of data is displayed from which the mark can be recovered. This assumption may not hold for some projections which may mean that the marks are not recoverable given current systems, so further development is needed.

There is some overlap with other standards initiatives with recommendations over handling of HDR (High Dynamic Range) for example. There is also synergy with other aspects of ultra HD such as next generation audio, with suggestions for providing cues to separate sounds so that they are matched to different parts of the field of vision within the head displays. This could dovetail with object based audio and apply to speaker systems as well as headsets.

One surprising omission are suggestions for safety or health related issues associated with excessive use of VR headsets, given that the ambition seems to be to drive deployment as fast as possible. This is a particular concern for children, which is why many headsets such as the Oculus Rift have recommended minimum age restrictions, in that case 13. One of the problems is that the user must focus on a single distance within the display close to the face even though the field of view itself changes and requires focusing without adjusting the eye’s position as would be the case when viewing the real world. It is unknown what the impact of this will be over the long term on people of different ages or stages of brain development.

Such studies take time to accumulate results, but it does seem that progress has been slow over health and safety issues given the first VR boom occurred in the 1990s and provoked a flurry of research then. It does not seem right to leave the recommendations to manufacturers, but perhaps the VRIF will address this aspect in a future version.