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5G, the next generation of mobile internet, offers communication speeds 10 to 20 times higher than what we have now. It offers more stable connections and enables more devices to communicate within the same area. But what does this really mean, and why should CIOs care?
One area where 5G is expected to have an enterprise impact is in the burgeoning augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) market. Long associated with hardcore gamers and specialized training for the likes of astronauts and surgeons, AR and VR are expected to play increasingly significant roles in industries ranging from real estate and retail to manufacturing, according to technology market prognosticators.
Citing faster chip speeds and other improvements to the technology underpinning AR and VR, Goldman Sachs estimates the combined AR/VR market will be an $80 billion market by 2025, or roughly the same size as the current PC market. Indeed, the firm believes the impact of AR and VR on the workplace and on how companies connect with customers will be on par with the transformation spurred by smartphones. Statista, the German statistics database, is even more bullish, predicting the AR/VR industry will be valued at $209 billion by 2022. Gartner recently reported that by 2020, 100 million consumers will shop in AR online and in-store.
Yet, AR and VR still face many obstacles to reach their full potential -- and here is where 5G comes in.
Current problems with AR and VR
First, the limitations of current AR/VR uses: There are many headsets developed that offer AR and VR, including HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR. Also, many smartphones support AR. However, these offer limited use of AR and VR. Smartphones need to be constantly held at eye-height to have any use.
Headsets, on the other hand, struggle with different problems. To produce quality graphics, headsets need a GPU. If the GPU is stored on the headset, it produces heat and consumes a lot of power. As Antony Vitillo, AR/VR consultant and owner of the AR/VR blog The Ghost Howls explained, the alternative is to use the GPU of a PC (as Oculus Rift does), but that would require a constant cable connection. Other headsets such as Oculus Quest or Vive Focus Plus use Qualcomm chipsets, typically used in mobile phones. But they cannot compete with the rendering power of a graphics card at the moment.
Another problem is the high price of these headsets. Typically, because of the need for high-end graphics, the headsets need advanced electronics, which drives up the price, or they must be tied to a PC, which makes them far less useful than a smartphone at the same price.
Atul SalgaonkarFounder and CEO, Hapi VR
AR and VR also have a collaboration problem. Currently, most AR and VR experiences are mainly designed for a single user. If many users are going to collaborate, they need to do that in real time. The system, in turn, would need to render the shared reality of all users and stream that to all parties to enable them to interact together. Unfortunately, the latency in current devices causes motion sickness.
Finally, there is the problem with the design of the headsets. "We all envision the headset of the future as something that is like present-day sunglasses," said Vitillo. "But to be so thin, the headsets can't feature much electronics inside ... and here 5G enters the game."
What 5G holds for AR/VR
How does 5G address these limitations? In simple terms, 5G can offload the complex graphical computations on the cloud and send the result back to the headsets in real time. Thus, the headsets would become much cheaper and lighter, while having a prolonged battery life. But there is more to 5G enablement of AR/VR than lighter headgear, better battery life and low latency.
According to Atul Salgaonkar, founder and CEO of Hapi VR, 5G could enable shared VR experiences, thus solving the single user limitation. He offered the example of students taking a virtual school field trip to an historic site where they could see each other's reactions and could interact with one another. "Unlike the old days of solitary VR, this simultaneous multiuser functionality would be possible only with 5G," Salgaonkar said.
On the AR perspective, if several people need to interact with a virtual object simultaneously, each of them would need to see their version of that object as well as any modifications others make to it in real time. 5G would be necessary not only for the transmission speed, but also to allow several devices to collaborate within a small area.
It must also be noted that AR and VR technology is not limited to GPU and 3D calculations -- it also enables video streaming. The capability could enable users to remotely participate in a concert or a lecture, but such streams require 33 times more data than a standard video: 5G offers a way to handle the data without limiting the number of users collectively participating in the virtual event.
"One of its salient features is something called network slicing, which assures that a section of the bandwidth is assured for an application regardless of what other apps/users may be doing outside of this guaranteed slice," Salgaonkar said. Similar to bathroom plumbing that ensures the flow of a shower is not affected by someone else in the household flushing a toilet, 5G ensures the user experience does not degrade, no matter how much bandwidth other nearby devices are using.
AR/VR has an enormous, but untapped, potential for enterprise use, most experts agree, but for the reasons explored above currently limited to a niche market. As 5G becomes available, many inherent limitations of current AR/VR devices can be removed. CIOs should anticipate that the technology will become an integral part of our daily lives -- inside and outside of the workplace. As the devices become thinner, more portable and with improved collaboration features, they could even become an alternative to smartphones and we will wonder how we ever lived without them.
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