With the hype of 5G rapidly being replaced by rollouts and reality, early in 2020 Scotland’s First Minister had the chance of trying out a 5G enabled virtual reality experience courtesy of BT.
So is this it? Is 5G just going to be about being able to be somewhere where you’re not, but only if you wear clunky big headsets? Luckily, the answer is no. In that case, what is the point of 5G?
In this article I’ll give you some ideas on what the key benefits of 5G will be, demonstrating this by exploring how these will transform how we think about Virtual Reality and the impact it could have on society – all of this with a few handy examples.
It’s more than just a next version of mobile
Having been in the industry during the rollout of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, if you ask people on the streets what they hope the next generation of mobile, or next “G”, will bring them, the answers are fairly predictable. 5G is no different. I’ve seen numerous studies that show people expect lower bills, faster speeds, and ubiquitous coverage.
If that’s your hope then, at least in the near to medium term, I should warn you that only one of those will come close to being realised – speeds. 5G is more than just speed, but it might take some time to see the benefit of all the other aspects. What are the other aspects, I hear you ask. Well…
The industry created a nifty little triangle diagram to come to a consensus on what 5G should be about, it’s called the 5G Usage Scenarios.
This magic triangle defines the three primary evolutions of mobile technology that combine to make what is known as 5G:
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband – which means mobile devices will be able to achieve faster speeds more often, with the goal being a blistering 1 Gigabit per second (with certain caveats and conditions applied)
- Massive Machine Type Communications – this is about being able to deliver on the goals of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connect billions of different types of devices to the internet in a more scaleable, cost-effective way than existing technologies can support. This is important for things like Smart Cities, where your parking spaces, street lamps and trash bins will talk with the windows and ventilations systems of buildings (for example).
- Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications – this covers two things, one is the low latency which means minimising the delay that is experienced between a mobile device sending some data and the mobile network receiving that data, and the other is about making a mobile network that is rock-solid and can be depended upon even in the most critical and time-sensitive of matters, such as deciding whether or not a car needs to apply the brakes when traveling at high speed on a motorway (actually it is highly unlikely any car manufacturer will allow this kind of decision to be dependent on a mobile network, but I use that as an example that I hope is easy to understand).
So that’s the corner-cases, what about the rest?
It is envisioned that every other application of 5G will be a mixture of one or more of those heightened, new capabilities.
Going back to the BT Virtual Reality example in Scotland, today this would sit somewhere along the right hand side of the triangle, probably closer to the top (faster speeds), than the bottom-right (low latency). However, over time, this might move further to the centre of that triangle, and maybe even down towards the bottom-left as more and more people start using these kinds of things in their everyday lives.
I’m sure many of you have experienced Virtual Reality already and are thinking, “Well, I didn’t need 5G for that so what’s the point?”. Fair question.
You might have experienced Virtual Reality at home, in a bar, an amusement arcade, in a conference, meeting or even on a roller coaster. It is most probable that in each of these cases, the number of people using it in the area was probably limited to 10s of people, maybe 50 or so at a push. Each of the Virtual Reality devices were probably connected via dedicated high-speed WiFi and were only expected to work in a particular area.
5G is about breaking those rules, and being able to have hundreds, thousands of people using this kind of service, inside and outside, wherever and whenever is needed.
The astute reader might well already realise that actually the BT demonstration mentioned above might also fall into that same criteria – it was most likely that it was conducted in a meeting room, and even though it was using the BT 5G network, WiFi was most likely available.
But you have to look beyond that. Virtual Reality has a much greater role to play than just for gaming or novelty.
VR with no boundaries
With 5G, Virtual Reality doesn’t have to be confined to a pre-determined space, or have to be set up on specific wifi networks, and as such the future real-world use of Virtual Reality could be quite different to what you’ve experienced today.
To be fair, I think many of the future VR uses will most likely be more Augmented or Mixed Reality than purely Virtual. The difference being that in a pure Virtual Reality setting, everything the user experiences is inside the headset, in Augmented or Mixed reality, the user’s experience is combined with what they see, hear, feel or smell and the world around them.
Future un-bounded Virtual Reality experiences
To try and make sense of this, I have provided a couple of possible examples.
Disasters, Search and Rescue
In times of emergency or crisis, getting the experts and help that is needed on the ground can, both, take too long and also be too dangerous. Imagine a fuel tanker collides with a train bridge in the middle of nowhere. Getting the specialist fire and rail teams to the scene could take quite a while, in that time very bad things could happen.
Now imagine the local fire brigade is equipped with a 360-degree, ultra high definition camera, perhaps even a drone too. The local team turn up to the disaster, power up the cameras (which connect to a 5G network) and a fully trained specialist from the other side of the country (or even in another country) can provide realtime guidance advice and experience to the team on the ground.
In this scenario, the 5G network supports the very high bandwidth demand of the cameras, but also the realtime communications on the ground. Beyond that, the specialist might not be conveniently in an office or control centre, they might have been at the theatre with family, or on vacation – in which case 5G is being used at that end too.
Virtual Reality is a very effective tool for creating empathy – being able to help people understand what it’s like to be experiencing the world from a different perspective, especially from someone else’s perspective.
It can be used very effectively in schools, and for work-place training – I’ve seen this work really well for military and fire-service as well as gender-equality and work-place harassment scenarios.
Beyond this, Virtual Reality could completely transform field trips to ancient ruins. Imagine a group of visitors to ancient Roman ruins putting on their headsets and being surrounded by the glorious structures and locals of times gone by.
The image I use at the top of this page is actually of a group of visitors to an art gallery, experiencing the story of the artwork, not just the painting itself. They are able to see what the world was like for the painter, and perhaps how the painting was actually done. All together this would make for a much more meaningful, long lasting and more educational experience.
In fact the idea of taking someone to a time gone by, has been shown to help dementia suffers.
Where to next?
Like Virtual Reality, the future of 5G will bring much more than we can see today.
Virtual Reality will have its place, but I think Mixed and Augmented Reality will find more useful traction.
5G, on the other hand, will bring improvements to healthcare, the environment, education, safety, entertainment and the financial performance of many companies too, as they explore new ways to do what they do, and new things to provide to more people.
I’ll cover more of these at a later point, so please do subscribe to keep up to date.