From healthcare to retail, 3D volumetric video is set to transform entire industries  

Lisa Perkins, BT’s Director of Research and Applied Innovation, tells us how a technology first imagined in science fiction will soon enter the mainstream.

Have you heard of volumetric video? Few people have, but this new technology is poised to dramatically impact a whole range of industries in ways we can only imagine.

Volumetric video is one of many new technologies we’re experimenting with at Adastral Park, our innovation centre here at BT. Thanks to funding from the UK government’s 5G Create funding initiative, we’ve been able to form the 5G Edge-XR consortium – a group of six leading organisations led by my BT Media and Research teams who, together, are driving forward thinking on emergent technologies.

Under the banner of 5G Edge-XR, we are working hard to ensure virtual and augmented experiences like volumetric video are ready for the real world. The 5G Edge-XR consortium allows us to develop and test real life use cases to extend our thinking.

We are beginning to understand the vast potential of this technology.

What is volumetric video?

Volumetric video is a way of capturing a person, object or environment in three dimensions so that it can be seen remotely in 3D from any perspective.

The low latency connectivity offered by 5G and paired with compute power sited at the edge of the network enables volumetrically captured objects, be that musicians performing on stage or a boxer fighting in a ring, to be seamlessly streamed to a display – and experienced in the same way our brains perceive an  object moving in front of us.

In other words, volumetric video will enable live events to be streamed online at broadcast quality and in three dimensions, enabling viewers to watch the event in real-time from any angle of their choosing.

We will be able to watch live performances unfold from just a few feet away, to circle around or move in between the performers, and to experience events in real time – as if they are in our living room.

Our video series ‘The Future is Now’ shows a great example of this in action.

“For business, small and large, volumetric video will open up new ways of collaborating, enabling virtual offices to be created.”

 

Transforming remote working for business

Recently, we’ve all experienced what it means to live in a world powered by virtual interactions. We understand how meaningful it is, when we can’t be together, for our virtual world to be as seamless and intuitive as possible.

This is especially true for business, and for how we work together remotely.

In my experience, the most creative collaborations include serendipitous, off-the-cuff conversations with colleagues, perhaps whilst making a cup of coffee. Just recently, my colleagues and I were thinking about how volumetric technology could open the door for us to meet, share and work together in a virtual space – helping to overcome some of the limitations of working together on a 2D screen.

In architecture or manufacturing, for example, employees will be able to virtually gather remotely around 3D virtual models of buildings or products and be able to collaborate and make adjustments, allowing every stakeholder throughout the supply chain to react in the moment ensuring a more seamless flow through across the production process.

Revolutionising industries

A whole range of diverse industries, from communications and entertainment to health and education, stand to benefit from this technology.

Volumetric video could transform how we connect with our friends and loved ones. Imagine being able to spend quality time with a far away friend or relative, in real time and in three dimensions, just as though they were sitting next to us on the sofa.

For business, small and large, volumetric video will open up new ways of collaborating, enabling virtual offices to be created – rather than colleagues communicating on a flat screen. Full-scale models can be created and shared in 3D, allowing everyone in a production line to properly assess a final product. Presentations and meetings can be held without the need to fly across the world, lowering a business’ carbon footprint.

It will change how we experience some of the most enjoyable aspects of our lives - like sport, art and theatre. Imagine being able to view a global sporting event or theatre performance as a live three dimensional hologram, virtually projected onto a coffee table in a living room.

And, it’s not just broadcasting and communications that will benefit from volumetric technology. Consider retail; we will be able to virtually enter a high street boutique and try on clothes to make sure they fit and look good before ordering the physical garment. We could even tour the interiors of homes for sale without entering the space itself.

In schools, teachers will be able to create worlds within a classroom for their pupils to explore.

In hospitals, doctors will be able to study 3D scans of a patient’s body. They might be able to view a hologram of a patient’s heart, helping them to form a clear diagnosis. Scientists’ ability to collaborate, experiment and share research across continents will be able enriched by the creation of virtual labs, as well as the potential volumetric study of microscopic organisms, allowing them to discover new information, improve diagnosis and develop new medicines.

Why is 5G such a key part of this new technology?

We are world leaders when it comes to developing network capability, and we will always seek to innovate and improve our customers network speed and connectivity.

5G will completely change the parameters of what we’re able to deliver – as a mobile network and as a technology provider and innovator.

It will revolutionise everyday connection and bandwidth speeds for BT customers everywhere, allowing massive amounts of data to move at a pace we’ve never seen before.

It will allow volumetric technology to enter our everyday world. Because volumetric video needs 5G.

The sheer amount of processing power required to render and display a high-resolution three dimensional image places too much pressure on even the latest smartphones.

Today’s mobile devices, then, would struggle to cope with the processing work required to stream a volumetric video.

But the collaborative work of 5G Edge-XR is opening up whole new areas of possibility.

Edge compute facilities paired with high-end graphics processors placed at the edge of the 5G network means the intensive processing is done on remote computers before then being streamed to your device over 5G with super low latency.

Volumetric technology isn’t ready yet. But we will soon see it become a reality, one that benefits hospitals and schools, stadiums and performance venues, businesses and homes.

The low latency and high bandwidth speed of 5G will enable us to ensure volumetric video becomes a technology we can use and gain value from every day. I am convinced we are on the brink of realising a technology that will make a big difference to the quality of our lives.

This is an important moment

I’ve worked for BT throughout my entire career. I’ve been lucky enough to work on pioneering technology projects that have since embedded themselves into the everyday lives of all our customers, including developing and launching both generations of broadband. We weren’t sure, at the time, what people would use these huge bandwidth speeds for, but now we see households dependent on them to fuel all the services into the home.

They may still be in their infancy, but volumetric video and the associated AR and VR new technologies we are working on at Adastral Park have vast transformative potential. They can change our lives for the better, just as broadband has.

There is so much to be excited about. We’re on the edge of a new era of three dimensional technology.