Virtual Reality and Sustainability I – Introduction

You’ll notice that this blog was called “Sustainable Virtual Design” rather than “Sustainable Web Design”. This is a feature, not a bug – I’ve anticipated the rise of “sustainable VR” for some time now, ever since I participated in virtual world creation in Second Life in the late 2000s. This post is the first part of a series considering the rise of Virtual Reality in terms of sustainable design. In the posts, we’re going to explore:

  1. The features of Virtual Reality that weigh for and against Sustainable Virtual Design
  2. How a “Ux in VR” strategy can encourage more sustainable use of virtual and augmented reality.
  3. The impact of VR on the Internet audience from a sustainable perspective – does VR create a more, or less sustainable experience for users?

I’m developing these posts in concert with an upcoming talk I’m giving for World Usability Day 2016 at the UxPALA Meetup Group:

World Usability Day 2016 – Sustainable UX Design for Virtual Reality

Thursday, Nov 10, 2016, 6:30 PM

1615 16th St Santa Monica, CA

10 UX Professionals Attending

****CLICK HERE TO RSVP on EventBrite!********CLICK HERE TO RSVP on EventBrite!****World Usability Day 2016 – Sustainable [Green] UX Design for Virtual RealityWe get messages from HR, and tag lines on emails to “Save a Tree” and “Refrain from Printing.” Our office kitchens and break rooms have the requisite receptacles to separate waste into rec…

Check out this Meetup →

In this first post, we lay out the starting point thesis and antithesis:

  1. VR and Augmented Reality (AR) consume more power, lots more, than web pages or books.
  2. However, there may other features of VR and AR which may compensate, giving a better sustainability footprint compared to the “traditional” web.

We start our look at compensation by considering the value of immersive VR versus the distracted Web. Part of sustainability is effective use of products and services. Certain features of VR use to date show that “media consumption” is very different from the web, film, and mass media. These features point in a positive, rather than negative direction for sustainability.

A Little History

During the last year, I’ve been following the progress of virtual reality, from a problematic rebirth a few years ago, to ever-widening adoption in 2016. Sales of Oculus and HTC Vive headsets have been good, though not as high as some speculated. This in turn shows that the VR revolution is finally here, after several false starts. A key factor has been “low end” VR – experiences, grading up to higher-end headsets:

  1. Lowest end via Google Cardboard, which costs almost nothing if you have a decent smartphone. Price ($0-50 for a headset, plus your smartphone (and woe to you of you have a iPhone!).
  2. Middle range via Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream , giving a significantly better experience with a high-end smartphone. These systems support head-tracking, and also enable “gaze selection” – look at something, press a button on the device to select. Typical price: $900 ($800 for the phone $100 for the headset).
  3. High-end via HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. The high-end devices are the only ones currently supporting “room scale” VR (in other words, you can walk around the VR scene). Lower end devices just allow head-tracking. They also integrate with handheld controllers giving you the ability to interact with your hands, instead of just gazing. Instead of a smartphone, you use a high-end “gamer” PC capable of handling the more complex 3d scenes. Typical price: $1600.

All these systems give higher levels of engagement relative to older VR hardware. In older VR, the field of view was limited – you looked at the virtual world through what seemed like expensive binoculars. This lowered engagement. In contrast, all the options above offer 90 degree or higher fields of view. If you don’t move your eyes from side to side, 90 degrees pretty much fills your view.

And the next generation of devices debuting in 2017 will have even wider FOVs of up to 270 degrees, making the scene complete – you won’t be able to look outside the scene even if you move your eyes.

So, the new-era VR is cheaper, and more engaging. While the pace of adoption is a bit slow, VR is going to be part of virtual design, and hence Sustainable Virtual design. How might that change our way of thinking about online sustainability?

Energy Use of Virtual Reality

The crudest, and most obvious feature of VR use is energy consumption. For some initial stats, see my earlier post on estimated energy consumption by VR. According to Jason Paul, the general manager of Nvidia’s gaming, and VR business, VR computers need to be 7 times more powerful than typical consumer desktops.

An example of this comes from our the VR-humbled Macintosh. At present, high-end VR using an Oculus or Vive headset can’t run on a Macintosh – any Mac – due to limitations in their video cards. Apple has used relatively low-powered (and therefore more energy efficient) video hardware for many years, and this threatens to keep them out of the VR market. As for Apple PR “We’ve got 100 people working on the problem” – they doth protest too much. Amazing, since Apple created and eliminated QuickTime VR may years ago…

You CAN use an iPhone for Google Cardboard-style experiences. However, the current VR support libraries don’t play nice with iOS and you often get system menus intruding on your VR scene.

And for Windows, you usually need to upgrade to a ~$1500 computer to get enough power to run VR effectively. Lower speeds don’t work – if you can’t get 90 frames per second out of your device, the VR headset will de-sync with your movements, and your VR experience will turn into a “vomit comet”. This requirement for extremely smooth scene display and precise head and body tracking is behind the earlier failures of VR to connect. Even now, fast-paced VR games are pretty much expected to make you throw up.

There’s also the issue of bandwidth. Common 3D games may be hundreds of megabytes, and these days are often downloaded via Steam or related online game services. Web-based (meaning JavaScript) 3D libraries run smaller, but a typical download to create a 3D stereo scene in the browser using THREE.js or BabylonJS would be 2 megs. That about doubles the download size of a typical web page. And complex VR will need to constantly stream textures, audio, video and user social data, raising the level well above something like YouTube into Netflix territory.

VR Energy Consumption

So, VR will use more power than web pages, due to greater hardware needs . How much? Already, the true embodied energy of a smartphone is higher than most home devices, even hogs like your refrigerator.

embodied energy cost of various consumer products


And, it is not just the hardware – it is the network. How much is that? Well one estimate based on the “Location-Based Augmented Reality” game Pokemon Go. To quote Mark P. Mills , a leading researcher into the energy cost of tech,

Virtual worlds live inside the real worlds of massive communications and Cloud computing infrastructures manufactured with real not virtual materials and consuming real energy.

The key point in this article is that a VR or AR (Augmented Reality) system will use more power than the Web at every stage of production and delivery. Developing complex VR and AR takes production hardware, time and resources greater than that of web or “classic” app development. I love the following quote (which mimics a silly ad by the State of California encouraging reduced energy use). In short, location-based gaming will cause shoes to wear out, requiring lots more fuel and resources than if we just read web pages!

CEO Hanke sees all that walking about as having social and health benefits since it will “have helped users all around the world have fun, socialize, and get more fit as they play and explore.” But in energy accounting, we count the fuel used to manufacture shoes: the equivalent of about a gallon of gasoline is used per pair of sneakers fabricated. So to make all the extra sneakers for all that Pokémon walking about will create an energy and carbon footprint equivalent to putting 100,000 cars on the road.

Unrelated, but a reminder that ‘cool’ stuff is not necessarily green – witness this comment on the energy-hog features of growing pot!

According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which carries out energy planning for the Columbia River Basin states (Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon), growing marijuana indoors consumes up to 5,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per kilogram of output. For comparison, aluminum production requires about 16 kilowatt-hours per kilogram.

No free lunch. And that’s exactly what we often thing about virtual products like the web, smartophone, and now, VR and AR. But theya re not “weightless”!

Linking AR and VR to the cloud requires powering constant connections, as opposed to the “stateless” connect-disconnect cycle of websites. Websites spend most of their time disconnected from the network. In contrast, 360 web video (essentially video in the round created by a VR headset) is constantly streaming, and the energy consumption at the destination is only a fraction of that needed to power the cloud, network connections, and (especially) wireless Internet connections via cellphone towers. Mobile devices don’t use much power, the larger system uses a lot of juice. So, the real power required to use an AR app is hidden by the phone, similar to the way that “clean” electric cars hide the dirty ways that electricity is generated to charge them. Another quote:

When everything in the ICT ecosystem is accounted for, one finds that a single iPhone or tablet can easily use – or more properly, cause to be used – at least 400 kWh per year. That’s roughly the same as a high-efficiency residential refrigerator.

Now, the plans for VR are that we create really powerful smartphones with super-high bandwidth connections to the cloud. This will result in the energy use per device jumping considerably. Instead of one, your iPhone (provided Apple gets off its butt into VR and AR) will use the equivalent of multiple residential refrigerators.

VR Will Use More Energy, but…

VR is part of the many decades-long increase in energy consumption by media. When books went to color and reproduced photographs the energy per book rose. The original World Wide Web jumped power consumption, which increased steadily as connections went from modem to “broadband” speeds. Now, creating 3D worlds will raise consumption even more.

In the next post, we’ll embed VR in the larger area of Virtual Sustainability, and consider the advantages of a medium encouraging “long-form” interaction as opposed to the “grasshopper” surfing common on the web.


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