Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WiGig certification has begun -- in time for virtual/augmented reality

What we call "WiFi" today began at the National Cash Register company (NCR) with the development of a product to wirelessly connect point-of-sale terminals in stores. NCR took their design to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional society that defines standards. IEEE formed a committee, which issued their 802.11b and 802.11a wireless communication standards in 1999.

Standards enable competition and a number of companies began selling 802.11-compatible equipment. They also formed a trade association -- the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance -- to test and certify that their products met the IEEE standards and to market the concept of wireless local area networking. They soon changed the association name to the Wifi Alliance and coined the marketing term "WiFi."

As technology improved, new WiFi standards were invented -- 802.11a, b, g, n and ac.

This week, the WiFi Alliance began certifying compliance with the latest (though not the last) WiFi standard (802.11ad) and gave it the trade name "WiGig."

Each of these WiFi variants has different characteristics -- transmitting on different frequencies and using different methods of signalling whether a bit is a 1 or a 0. WiGig uses a much higher frequency than the others, which enables it to send data very fast -- at a gigabit per second or more -- with very low latency.

That is the good news. The bad news is that high frequency radio transmission travels short distances in air and loses power when passing through obstructions. WiGig will typically be used within rooms.

So, what are the WiGig use cases? The WiFi Alliance suggests these examples:

  • Wireless docking between devices like smartphones, laptops, projectors, and tablets
  • Simultaneous streaming of multiple, ultra-high definition videos and movies
  • More immersive gaming, augmented reality and virtual reality experiences
  • Fast download of HD movies
  • Convenient public kiosk services
  • Easier handling of bandwidth intensive applications in the enterprise
Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is the most interesting to me.

First head-mounted AR/VR display
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland wrote a short note outlining a sci-fi vision of the Ultimate Display, which "with appropriate programming ... could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked." He proceeded to build an AR/VR prototype using a headset that was tethered to a computer.

That was fifty years ago. Today, we have low-quality AR/VR using our phones, but high resolution, fast AR/VR -- anything approaching Alice in Wonderland -- still requires tethering a head-mounted display to a computer.

Next year computers, smart phones and tablets with WiGig connectivity will be on the market. How about head-mounted AR/VR displays?

WiGig will enable untethered, high-performance AR/VR. A computer or an AR/VR appliance in the room will generate high definition, low latency video that the user sees in a relatively "dumb," light and comfortable headset or glasses and information from the headset and any controllers will be transmitted wirelessly back to the computer.

The untethered user will be free to move about the room and, since most of the computation will be off-loaded to the computer, the headset will not consume much power.

To put the possibility of untethered, high performance AR/VR in perspective, check out this this short video showing Sutherland's research prototype demonstration of very slightly augmented reality:

Update 11/6/2016

Microsoft has demonstrated a relatively low cost, tethered head set that can track six degrees of freedom -- head up/down, head left/right and forward/backward in the room.

They say more details will be available in December and OEMs like Dell will be shipping product early next year starting at $299. The computing load is said to be low compared to the more expensive tethered virtual reality headsets on the market -- within the capability of a $500 PC.

Once WiGig is available, the tether will disappear and Microsoft will have a strong entry in the virtual reality market. They will also benefit from engineering synergy between this product and their untethered Hololens augmented reality product. (Some of the tracking technology was borrowed from the Hololens).