Augmented and virtual reality are developing rapidly due to commercial opportunities to enhance how users experience the actual, physical world. Although this trend will impact industry verticals, its embrace by consumers may produce a truly enormous wave of demand.
The good news is that this development promises to bring the richness of the cyber world to the physical world for enhanced services that enrich our lives. The sobering take-away, however, is that mass uptake of augmented and virtual reality will further burden the world’s information and computing technologies (ICT) and their potentially unsustainable consumption of energy and carbon footprints.
This double-edged sword is another wrinkle in the ongoing effort to green ICT. Though virtual and augmented reality will potentially exacerbate an unsustainable trend, it turns out that these applications may also be used to improve ICT’s sustainability. Sustainable or green ICT, in turn, can help green other industry verticals and networked systems.
Thus a holistic approach is emerging in which every sensor, node, circuit, processor, network, etc., must be designed for efficiency and sustainability as well as their ability to do so in other systems.
ICT And Sustainability
Studies have documented that the ICT industry currently produces about two percent of global CO2 emissions, a level similar to the aviation industry. In five years, if we do not chart a more sustainable course, ICT’s CO2 emissions will account for double that output.
Our use of the Internet, which relies on ICT, is expanding annually by 30 percent to 40 percent; in 10 years that growth amounts to 30 times current traffic. Projections reveal we’ll reach 1,000 times current traffic in only 20 years. Unless we alter this trend, in a decade ICT may consume 60 percent of global energy resources.
New applications that require an ICT platform have an outsized impact on the already daunting challenge of making ICT more sustainable.
New “Reality” Applications
Though augmented and virtual reality gained notoriety through the gaming world, technical advancements and commercial interests have pushed them into the mainstream. (See Tekla S. Perry’s “Augmented Reality: Forget the Glasses,” IEEE Spectrum, 29 December 2016).
In just one example, a combination of technologies will allow someone to point their phone at a physical feature and receive immersive insights. One’s location, direction, angle of interest, distance, and other metrics measured by sensors will enable the user to tap into sources of audio, visual, or sensory information that augments the experience.
How the data creating that new experience is stored, retrieved, and processed has significant implications for its impact on ICT, its energy consumption, and carbon footprint.
Potential Ecosystem Impacts
In this one example of consumer-facing, augmented reality, hand-held, or wearable devices will need energy and data storage, processing and presentation capabilities, and sensors. These devices may connect to nodes on the physical features themselves, as in fog computing. They may connect to the cloud and centralized processing, or interact with other nearby devices to create a mesh network with an entirely different means of obtaining, processing, and presenting data.
It is becoming clear that each of these scenarios—or some combination of them—has its own set of costs and benefits, in terms of the networking and processing efficiencies that dictate their energy use and environmental impacts. Every scenario comes with trade-offs that may not be simple, obvious, or intuitive. So we must take a holistic approach in which we explore every possible strategy or combination of strategies, the networking and processing costs, and benefits to create the best experiences with the lowest energy and environmental impacts.
One can imagine a few trade-offs. A virtual reality application may demand near-real time (zero latency) data retrieval, processing, and presentation. In some cases, having sensors, data, processing, etc., on the device itself may be the best solution to achieve low latency. That configuration, however, may place untenable demands on a portable energy source such as a battery. In contrast, dependence on the cloud places greater demands on core networks and central processing while introducing latency.
Each application and the strategies for optimizing the resulting user experience while holistically considering the impacts on various elements of the ICT ecosystem will require deep analysis to achieve optimum efficiency.
This is where things get interesting.
Greening Begets Greening
The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) has demonstrated ICT itself has the potential to reduce the global carbon footprint by an amount equal to roughly about 10 times of its own. As we green ICT, we increase its ability to green other networked systems, such as those dedicated to healthcare, agriculture, education, transportation—you name it.
It turns out that augmented and virtual reality provide useful tools for modeling ICT networks in such a way that will reveal the trade-offs just mentioned. We can use augmented and virtual reality to help design the most efficient, dynamic, adaptable ICT networks to lower their energy use and thus their environmental impacts.
Just as the mainstream embrace of augmented and virtual reality applications begin adding to the burden on ICT networks and introduce new challenges to sustainability, these applications will likely also produce new pathways to sustainability. Add a dash of artificial intelligence or “machine learning,” if you will, and such systems might be designed for continuous self-improvement in increasing efficiencies and decreasing carbon footprints.
In turn, we can apply aspects of augmented and virtual reality, as well as efficient ICT networks, to the challenge of improving the efficiencies and sustainability of all those aforementioned industry verticals.
The proverbial big picture becomes even more complex when one considers how to power augmented and virtual reality applications and centralized or distributed ICT resources. As distributed energy resources achieve greater efficiencies, they too become a factor. Some applications and aspects of ICT networks require instant, consistent energy, while other actions can be accomplished when energy is available.
It’s entirely feasible that end-users may play a role in deciding the efficiency and sustainability of their own actions and demands on applications and ICT platforms.
Consumer Role In Sustainability
Just as augmented and virtual reality may present challenges and potential solutions to sustainability, so may end-users, the consumers of these applications.
I can imagine, for example, that handheld and wearable technologies may present users with a choice: will you accept some latency in your selected application in order to make it greener? Perhaps such choices will become automated and the user merely indicates his or her predilection for the greenest use of applications on offer and further decision-making is made by the device.
At that point with the global community trending towards awareness of the sustainability issues that connect each person’s choices with the health of our planet, we collectively will choose the optimal path.
In the meantime, every person involved in writing code, designing microprocessors or ICT networks, developing applications—everyone in the entire ecosystem—must work towards intelligent, energy-efficient designs that support the fundamental goal of sustainability. As I’ve illustrated here, sustainability can build on itself in ways that may meet our most complex challenges.
Dr. Elmirghani will speak at the IEEE Green ICT Initiative’s upcoming global conference, Greening through ICT Summit (GtICT)—“Sustainability in a Connected World”—in Paris, Oct 3, 2017.