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August 3, 2016

Facebook’s Vision of Virtual Reality

infinera_geoff-bennettBy Geoff Bennett

Director of Solutions and Technology

As a confirmed technogeek, I was delighted when my recent purchase arrived this week – the Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headset, which uses the Oculus VR technology recently acquired by Facebook.

Geoff Bennet in VR Headset
Samsung Gear VR Headset Worn by Blog Author Geoff Bennett

These headsets have really dropped in price recently, and part of the reason they’re such a good value is that they use one’s existing Samsung phone as the screen – combining it with good stereo optics and high-resolution, low-latency accelerometers built into the headset.  While the resolution of high-end phone screens is great for everyday use, the VR headset has to share the phone screen resolution between both eyes, which means I occasionally notice individual pixels.  But I quickly discounted that as the 3D VR experience drew me in, and within minutes of starting to use the VR headset I was totally immersed in travel photos and 3D movies.

The experience made me realize that an entry-level device like this one foreshadows the enormous potential of VR technology.  A great illustration of these trends was used in a presentation at the recent Next Generation Optical Networking (NGON) conference by Steve Grubb, PhD, a senior network architect at Facebook.  I was much impressed by Steve’s description of the new Oculus VR technology that is projected to one day deliver 4K or even higher resolution.  Now that I’ve seen the power of what I consider low-definition VR, the idea of ultra-high-definition, pixel-free VR piped into each eye, with 360 degree video data synchronized to head movement, is truly exciting.  More importantly from the network operator perspective, imagine the impact on network bandwidth that this level of resolution will demand, since many of these VR experiences are streamed rather than downloaded and run locally.

This is yet another answer to the perennial question of “why would anyone ever need more than X megabits per second of bandwidth?” (in which X moves up quite a bit every year).  In fact, an immersive, 4K VR experience would make a big dent in a 1 gigabit per second (1G) feed.  Steve Grubb is one of many network architects around the world who are planning how emerging networks can satisfy this level of demand. In his talk at NGON, he described how a cognitive network architecture could exploit the flexibility in multiple technology dimensions of optical transmission to achieve high levels of capacity.  Flexible modulation, flexible spectrum allocation and flexible baud rate can all be tuned to extract the maximum remaining capacity from existing optical fibers, as well as to exploit the additional capacity offered by new generation fibers such as large-area, low-loss subsea fibers.  When asked after his presentation what was the most interesting thing about high-capacity transmission at the moment, his reply highlighted his surprise at just how much gas was left in the tank in terms of squeezing out capacity in optical fibers – especially when considering the dire warnings of approaching the Shannon limit.  The way to get to this extra gas is the clever part.  Steve described how excess spectrum exists in most transmission systems, and the ability to manipulate the levers of an advanced coherent system is the way to recover that capacity.

This is exactly the kind of challenge that Infinera’s Infinite Capacity Engine has been designed to address.  The Infinite Capacity Engine is designed not only to flex the modulation technique and baud rate per wavelength out of the photonic integrated circuit (PIC), but also to send these “sliced” fragments of super-channels to different network endpoints thanks to advanced flexible grid (FlexGrid) reconfigurable add-drop multiplexer (ROADM) capabilities.

I was recently honored with the opportunity to write the cover article for a new publication, PIC International Magazine, in which I describe the latest generation of super-channel capabilities in more detail, and explore Infinera’s move to an Infinite Capacity Engine that will provide the programmable foundation for its Intelligent Transport Network.

Here’s a link to that article, entitled “Super-channels and the Growing Importance of Photonic Integration for Optical Transmission.”  That there is a new publication focused on PIC technology reflects the growing interest by semiconductor manufacturers across multiple markets in mastering optical integration techniques.

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