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A virtual reality future means changing broadband reality today

Today’s tools will not be adequate for a fully immersive, high-definition VR future.

whitehouse / Instagram

Last month, a ripple traversed the internet when the White House posted an Instagram picture of our commander in chief just outside the Oval Office wearing a pair of virtual reality glasses. In the photo, President Barack Obama is trying out a virtual reality experience captured during his trip to Yosemite National Park and created by National Geographic, Felix & Paul Studios and Oculus, while an aide continues to work at her desk oblivious to the strange scene.

This striking image of the Leader of the Free World transporting himself to another corner of the country brought nearly 600,000 views of the 360-degree video tour, and captivated many more people with this amazing technology — but that virtual experience is just the tip of the iceberg for VR.

Putting on a virtual reality helmet or visor unlocks new impactful ways to tell stories, play games, and educate children and adults. While the equipment is costly and clunky today, in a few years, a pair of glasses and headphones will more than suffice for a VR experience. Virtual reality has the power to transform every form of video media consumption, as long as policymakers enable high-speed broadband networks to keep pace; a sensible regulatory environment that helps investment and innovation flourish is crucial.

The appeal of virtual reality is obvious to anyone who experiments with the technology. The world of gaming, for example, is hungry for VR. Video gamers crave the ability to set foot in a new realm.

In a different arena, VR sports company StriVR Labs is changing how people prepare for competition. Stanford Football, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and many other college and pro teams are using StriVR’s immersive technology to train their players. Today, whether you're an Olympian or an NFL quarterback, you can learn to think through tough situations by training in a virtual setting — but without physical contact or wear and tear on your body. And soon, StriVR Labs and their competitors will turn VR technology from a training tool to an entertainment powerhouse. Sports fans won’t just watch a game, they will be thrust into the middle of it. What fan wouldn’t love that?

Filmmakers are also betting on new VR tools to enhance both fictional stories and documentaries. Imagine the possibilities: Directors will be able to place the viewer inside of an atom or the Grand Canyon; a viewer would not just see the flight of a bird, but personally experience the bird’s flight. Attempting to explore societal problems, young filmmakers are using VR to take viewers into environments ranging from an Ebola treatment center to a Syrian refugee camp. Others are developing platforms that allow men to experience the world from a female perspective, and let different racial groups exchange places. People will better understand one another’s points of view when each of us can experience another’s perspective via virtual reality.

The future of virtual reality is bright. Investors are bullish, users are excited to consume novel entertainment and educational applications and engineers are developing new products. While innovators create exciting hardware and content, a VR future is only possible if policymakers make the right decisions today. Virtual reality will require new and upgraded broadband networks, both wired and wireless, that will be capable of satisfying future bandwidth needs of the technology, which consumes massive amounts of data.

Policymakers need to make more spectrum available, too. People are using their iPhones and Android phones for the early versions of VR, but today’s tools will not be adequate for a fully immersive, high-definition virtual reality future. Whether it is 4K, 5K, high-definition or ultra-high definition, each next-generation technology will require retrofitting our infrastructure. It’s time to rethink, rebuild and reinvest.

Some 30 years ago, some policymakers understood that HDTV would start a digital video revolution. Forward-thinking policymakers today should anticipate the virtual reality needs of tomorrow. President Obama and the rest of us have been given a glimpse of our media future. Now we need to make the policy decisions to ensure that future becomes reality.

Larry Irving served for almost seven years as assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information during the Clinton Administration and is president and CEO of the Irving Group. Reach him @larry_irving.

Jamal Simmons is co-chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA). Reach him @JamalSimmons.

This article originally appeared on

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