Virgin Media Business offers vision of a hyper-connected future

[Credit: go_nils on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Avatars, super-crowdsourcing, and printing your own medication may sound like the stuff of science fiction books, but a hyper-connected future may not be that far away, according to a new report by Virgin Media Business.

Many businesses have already embraced deploying more mobile workforces, whereby employees are no longer tied to fixed hours or defined by their place of work. This shift has been enabled by the proliferation of smart connected devices, telepresence technologies and fast secure networks.

In Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), the mobile workforce is expected to grow by 5.6 percent a year, reaching 224.6 million people in 2015.

As the ability to work remotely becomes a necessity, technologies will develop to create more immersive virtual collaboration environments. The report predicts that avatars of colleagues will be conjured out of thin air by interactive surfaces, and telepresence studios will be fitted with virtual humanoids which take on the appearance of whoever wishes to use them.

Meanwhile, collaborative work search engines will connect workers with projects that need to be done to very tight deadlines, allowing hundreds of people to contribute just an hour of intensive work for a remote client. This means that projects which today last 3-12 months will in the future be delivered in record time.

"People are already striving to work closer together and pool resources so to explore new frontiers in technology and services. This will be supercharged in the future and 'Generation IP' workers will be drawing on huge collaboration, crowdsourcing information in real-time," said Araceli Camargo, founder of an innovation space in Shoreditch, THECUBE, commenting on the report.

"What's more, they'll be able to do this whenever and wherever they like, from virtual hologram meetings in your living room through to getting that killer statistic from the connected world around you while on the move."

Meanwhile, the growth of cloud computing and machine-to-machine communications will bring about significant changes in the home. Objects, as well as people, will be connected to the network, monitoring everything from energy consumption to whether you have enough milk in the fridge.

Healthcare will also be transformed, with virtual teleconferencing pods in local stores and shopping centres enabling patients to connect to hospital consultants many miles away. Synthetic material printing at the nanoscale level will also allow people to print their own medication at home.

These new ways of working and living will lead to a huge surge in the amount of data that businesses and people create and consume. According to Policy Exchange's "Big Data Opportunity" report, the amount of data stored by 2025 is expected to reach 100 zettabytes - the equivalent of 36 billion years of HD video.

In order to enable this revolution, investment is needed in the networks to enable seamless high-speed connectivity from multiple devices. According to Mark Heraghty, managing director of Virgin Media Business, providing connectivity in the home or office is fairly straight forward; the challenge from a technology point of view providing connectivity when the user is out and about.

"That's where the 'fibre to the lamppost' concept starts to become very important," said Heraghty told Techworld.

"We are looking to build very significant infrastructure in cities to host very small cell 3G and 4G and potentially WiFi capability. Then you start to have a huge meshed series of overlapping networks which means you're always connected."

Heraghty said that Britain's biggest networking problem at the moment is what he describes as the "backhaul bottleneck".

"The primary constraint is not the spectrum, it's not the so-called 'air interface'. It's the connections back from the radios, or the cells, to their network. So right across the UK we need to change out the old copper-based backhaul network and replace it instead with an optically-delivered fibre-based network so that you can handle Gigabits of data, not just a few Megabits," he said.

"Until we do all of that, and then augment that again with small cell deployment, then I think all of this stuff is still wishful thinking."

Deploying fibre network across the country requires a great deal of investment, and companies like Virgin Media and BT have been making great strides in recent years. However, government support is also needed to drive collaboration and integration between different private sector organisations.

Having been laggards for many years, the UK government is now starting to lead the charge, according to Heraghty, and there is now a great deal of cooperation happening across the various boroughs in London, for example.

"One of the interesting things about austerity is that it focuses the mind and forces people to make difficult choices and make them quickly," he said.

"To some extent, the austerity that we're still only starting is forcing bureaucracies to share cost, and to look at radical ways in which technologies can strip costs out and still protect investments."

The Generation IP:2025 report was carried out in conjunction with The Future Laboratory, using global trend data and a panel of experts, which included futurologists, entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors and professors from Imperial College London and MIT.

Virgin Media Business has produced the following video, depicting its vision of a hyper-connected future:

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