SK Telecom will unveil a new platform for 360-degree broadcasts at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017 event in Barcelona later this month.
Officially named the "360 Adaptive VR Live Streaming Platform," SK Telecom has thankfully shortened it to "360 VR Live" for normal conversational usage.
360 VR Live is an end-to-end broadcast system that allows users to produce and live stream 360-degree virtual reality (VR) video using a 360-degree UHD camera. Primarily aimed at mobile live streaming, it addresses the two major challenges faced by the burgeoning VR industry: video quality and bandwidth impact.
The South Korean operator's platform uses a new stitching technology developed in-house to combine multiple videos and images created by a 360-degree camera. According to SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), it uses a multi-band blending algorithm to stitch images in multiple layers, creating 360-degree VR content without any distortions. The platform also supports 60 frames-per-second (FPS) video, and the operator claims this results in image quality that is two times higher than existing approaches.
Higher video quality has been possible for 360-degree video in the past, but has resulted in higher bandwidth. According to SK Telecom this new platform uses dynamic tiling to reduce bandwidth requirements by 35%. It also uses "T Live Streaming," a customized version of the MPEG Media Transport (MMT) for the mobile environment, which improves live broadcasting of 360-degree VR video by reducing the time required from 20 seconds to below five seconds.
In addition, 360 VR Live uses binaural audio rendering, which allows for a three-dimensional audio experience. Users will notice that the volume and direction of the audio also changes as they look around and focus on different aspects in their 360-degree visual experience.
The initial targets for this technology will be broadcasters and social media companies, but the goal for the operator is to use it to build a new VR ecosystem. It plans to offer an open API for individuals and small-scale content developers to deliver new, innovative 360-degree experiences.
SK Telecom's platform appears to address the main challenges faced by VR: bandwidth and quality. Video resolution suffers in existing VR services, because creating a 360-degree experience means sending not only the video perspective viewers are seeing, but also other potential perspectives if they move their head in any direction. The only way to improve that video quality is to either increase bandwidth or latency. (See Sync or Sink: VRIF on VR Innovation.)
This platform aims to do both. But I suspect challenges remain. The operator claims that its dynamic tiling approach reduces bandwidth by 35% -- but that is 35% less than existing 360-degree video approaches. Based on my conversations with encoding vendors, 360-degree video can require three to six times the amount of bandwidth required for regular, non-360-degree video. So this platform will still need high-bandwidth networks to be in place to support 360-degree video streaming.
The platform appears to be aimed at mobile devices and live streaming, not at the large-screen TV experience. SK Telecom did mention broadcasters as a target, so we may see 360-degree streams of particular events aimed at mobile devices. But it's not primarily a TV-based technology aimed at movies or television drama.
All in all, it seems to me that this new platform is an exciting step forward for a nascent industry, and the open-API/media ecosystem development approach adopted by the operator may end up being a long-term accelerator for the development of the space. But my guess is that there's still a long way to go for 360-degree video to become mainstream.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation