AR: Removing the constraints of yesterday’s data centre

By Skip Levens, Marketing Director, Media and Entertainment, Quantum
The imminent future of content creation for VR, AR, visual effects and digital twinning poses a generational challenge for data storage and management

VR has been touted as a hot new technology for some time now, seemingly continually on the verge of its ‘breakout moment’. But that time will come soon - according to the latest forecast from Prescient and Strategic Intelligence, VR and related AR markets will grow from US$28.5 billion as of 2021 to $200bn by 2030. But VR and AR are only the tip of the iceberg. Other related fields like gaming, visual effects (VFX) and digital twinning will also see significant growth in the very near future, which has already created a “gold rush” in content creation and related skill sets for those bullish markets.

Creators, however, are struggling to match that demand as this new era of content not only poses many opportunities, but is also a generational challenge for data storage, data processing, content production workflows, and content management.

Games are the new blockbusters

Sony has just launched its second iteration of its VR platform, Playstation Virtual Reality 2 (PSVR2). The PSVR2 might be a harbinger for future growth and emergence of VR gaming as a mainstream technology. But of course, without VR, the gaming market eclipsed theatrical movie market size long ago and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The numbers speak for themselves: The global gaming market size was US$203.12bn in 2020 and is projected to reach US$545.98bn by 2028 with a CAGR of 13.2%.

With this growth and the growing prevalence of VR gaming, game developers will need to create an enormous amount of content in the next couple of years. As the lines between gaming and media & entertainment continue to blur, it is undeniable - and perhaps unsurprising - that the techniques of gaming content creation has had a lasting impact on content creation in general, increasingly powering the content production pipelines of related industries – like TV and movies.

Digital Effects: Animation, virtual effects (VFX) and virtual production are evolving

The impact of gaming can already be seen in the way TV shows and movies are produced today, delivering a level of special effects formerly only seen in blockbuster movies. Special effects have been getting more and more realistic and the technology is evolving quickly, and the demand for those digital creations has been growing consistently for decades now, culminating recently in the long-awaited Avatar 2 blockbuster movie. This technology has even found a way to reinvent how movies and television shows are shot – with the use of ‘LED volumes’ for virtual production. Rather than film ‘on greenscreen’, studios render out 3D models and textures to ultra-wide high-resolution LED walls that cameras shoot as backdrops and virtual sets. The walls not only provide ‘instant VFX’ the director can see on-camera but also provide lighting and colour, and frankly, something more for an actor to relate to than a flat green wall. The sets can literally be changed in seconds in an environment where you can dial up the perfect scenery and lighting and immediately see the effect on-set. 

This means that computer generated images are not only used for gaming or animated movies, but for almost all content created for the big screen, streaming platforms, and TV. All these platforms scramble for new content as the consumption of video content rose sharply during the pandemic. In 2020 alone video demand leaped 60% - and another 18% the year after. Many VFX studios are already working at capacity, notable by the seemingly endless list of VFX studios at the end of most blockbuster movies, each of which will have worked on just one small part of the movie.

Augmented reality – Shopping in the palm of your hands?

Another growing area for digital content creation is augmented reality – the superposition of 3D models and textures over ‘actual reality’. With a smartphone able to display AR, practically every consumer is already able to point their device at something and immediately get additional information. How would those sunglasses look on me? What kind of car is this? Who produces that chair, where can I buy it, and how would it look in my living room? The possibilities for virtual points-of-sales are literally endless as retailers on- and offline are working on ecosystems that create models for augmented shopping experiences. As with all technologies on this list however, the industry is struggling to fill those AR platforms with high-quality content, due to a lack of creators and inefficient content creation workflows.

Digital twinning: Product design and development using high-fidelity models

‘Digital twinning’ is another exciting new example of digital content creation. A physical product’s ‘digital twin’ is an intensely data-rich digital representation of a physical product, system, or process. It strives to model every aspect of the physical counterpart even before the manufacturing lines are turned on so that every aspect of the product can be tested and improved orders of magnitude faster, with invaluable insights to simulation, integration, testing, monitoring, training, and maintenance. Digital twinning was initially introduced for product lifecycle management. The technology is even further blurring the lines between content creation and more general enterprise and product development and design - as the technologies and workflows to create the digital content are very similar.

A generational challenge for content production and management.

Gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality, virtual effects, and digital twinning have a lot in common. As these technologies and their applications grow, so does the demand for more and more content. This means that skills learned in traditional VFX and game model creation are in high demand in all of these fields. 

A large part of this demand will need to be met by independent and department level creatives and studios. This means there is an opportunity to bring proven techniques, tools and lessons learned there into these new. Examples are the practice of keeping raw and finished content, archiving it throughout the workflow, and letting the creative team work together to speed up production times and avoid serial production bottlenecks. To achieve that, content production and collaboration must become much easier than it previously has been.

The constraints of legacy and hardware-centric storage designs

The biggest obstacle to speed up production times are legacy data storage architectures. Most enterprises continue to store their massive amount of data on systems that were designed over 20 years ago. To keep pace with the exponential data growth, especially with more and more unstructured data like high resolution media, audio, IoT-data or AI- and ML-data being created, the industry has “thrown hardware” at the problem.

To power the new era of digital business, a leap in technology and thinking is needed to remove the constraints of yesterday’s data centre. For new demanding workloads, low latency and tremendous IOPS are required, along with increased scalability and native cloud interoperability. One of the key building blocks of new solutions, built for the next era of content creation, is NVMe flash. Unlike traditional SAS and SATA, NVMe was specifically designed for solid-state memory, which makes it possible to process not only thousands but millions of concurrent operations. Without legacy storage hardware from spinning disk hard drives, data can flow onto and from NVMe drives as fast as the network connection can carry it. Now, organisations that create new demanding content for growing markets like VR/AR, gaming or VFX, will have to overcome inefficient content creation workflows and harness the full performance of NVMe if they want to be successful.

New era of creation needs new era of storage

The quickly growing markets for virtual reality, augmented reality, gaming, VFX and digital twinning are creating a huge demand for new high-definition content. Creators are constrained in creating that content by legacy and hardware-centric storage designs that were not designed to handle the massive scale of unstructured data in the modern storage era. The success of creatives in these emerging markets will not only depend on significant new developments in hardware but also on the software layer to improve and speed data management, data enrichment and workflow orchestration.

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