By Jaafar Elmirghani, Co-Chair, IEEE Green ICT Initiative
New Realities—Augmented And
Virtual—For ICT Sustainability
Emerging consumer services may give end-users a role in greening the world.
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
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
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
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