Innovation Journeys: 10G is new. We have been working on it for years.
You may have noticed that CableLabs is focused on innovation. One of our goals is to be recognized as the leading industry innovation lab in the world but talking about our innovation can be a bit tricky. Our job is to deliver innovation for the worldwide cable industry, but we can’t really talk about what we are working on now. We need to keep that secret for our member companies (cable operators) until the technology is ready to launch.
Our CEO, Phil McKinney has talked about how innovation is messy. Where you start may not be where you end up. I want to tell you about the path that led to one of our most important innovations--and part of our 10G platform. Low latency.
Our Low Latency Journey
We started on this journey over four years ago, with a challenge question (Focus in the FIRE methodology): What applications will drive a need for 60Mbps+ of sustained Internet bandwidth? That led to ideation sessions that unearthed the usual suspects: Internet of Things (billions of sensors, but each with such low bandwidth that they still don’t add up to much), 4K streaming video (good try, but still only 15Mbps or less), “Big Data” (sorry, not really a candidate for consumer households). Those applications didn’t quite answer the question.
But the emergence of 360° immersive video looked promising. Experiencing some of the earliest 360° video at the beginning of 2014 (shot on 6 Go-Pro’s, manually stitched) on a low-resolution Oculus Development Kit Virtual Reality headset got us thinking about where the technology might lead. Six 4K videos, streamed to the headset met the challenge of over 60Mbps, although compression gains would reduce the bandwidth and resolution increases would increase it.
Rather than “geeking out” on the technical possibilities, we followed advice from Phil: “Talk to consumers!” In February of 2015, we did primary research, bringing 50 varied members of the public into CableLabs to try out “immersive video content.” Rather than just focusing on virtual reality (VR) headsets, we constructed some other ways of consuming the content, such as immersive multi- 4K TV displays, ultra-wide projectors, tablets and regular TVs. We needed to understand whether “regular humans” (not geeks) would like these technologies.
The consumer research was massively informative. We shared the insights with our member companies at the time and realized that this ecosystem was likely to take off. We stepped back and tried to work out other mass-market use cases for VR.
We pivoted. We started to look at the possibilities of transforming how people communicate, and the ability to have holographic telepresence using digital human technology to perform digital headset removal. We don’t really want to talk to another person and see that person with a headset on; we want to see other people eye to eye and have them see us eye to eye. To prove the point, later in 2015 and into early 2016 we developed eye and mouth tracking capabilities that we added to a wireless VR headset and developed a digital human avatar of one of our staff.
We linked the head, eye and mouth tracking to real-time control of the digital avatar.
And in May of 2016 we demonstrated this to our board of directors.
We also found that realistic digital human avatars take LOTS of compute to render in real time, and that required a tethered PC. Even as mobile processors get faster and more capable, PC graphics will always be faster and more capable, due to their power budget. Phones get hot when you try to render realistic humans. To get to mass-market adoption, we need to go wireless and move the PC out of the home.
No Less Than a Revolution
VR needs incredibly low latency between head movement and the delivery of new pixels to your eyes, or you start to feel nauseated. To move the PC out of the home, we need to make the communications over the cable network be a millisecond or less round trip. But our DOCSIS® technology at the time could not deliver that.
So, we pivoted again. Since 2016, CableLabs DOCSIS architects Greg White and Karthik Sundaresan have been focused on revolutionizing DOCSIS technology to support sub-1ms latency. Although VR is still struggling to gain widespread adoption, that low and reliable DOCSIS latency will be a boon to gamers in the short term and will enable split rendering of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the longer term. The specifications for Low Latency DOCSIS (as a software upgrade to existing DOCSIS 3.1 equipment) have been released, and we’re working with the equipment suppliers to get this out into the market and to realize the gains of a somewhat torturous innovation journey.
Low latency is a key component of our 10G initiative. You can read more about the importance of latency here, and gain access both to a technical brief (members only) and to a detailed report (members only) on Wi-Fi latency in retail Wi-Fi routers.