While technology underpinning both Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) has been undergoing development for decades now, the industry has been held back by the pace of innovation across various tech frontiers. With advancements in networking/connectivity, computing, sensors and graphics, the larger obstacles toward wider adoption of these technologies are becoming less of a challenge.
The current challenge for the AR/VR industry is the considerable difficulty in deploying top quality systems that will deliver not only the mobility, but the robust user experience that mainstream users will want. The advent of 5G connectivity and its deployment into the communication infrastructure will be crucial in unlocking one of the key challenges that the industry currently faces: connectivity. This could unlock massive opportunities for the Architectural, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industries whose gaze is already fixed on the possibility of deploying these immersive technologies in a meaningful way to streamline processes and deliver value to clients.
What is 5G?
5G refers to the superfast “fifth-generation” mobile internet connectivity technology that is already being rolled out by various carriers across the globe. The evolution of mobile connectivity into 5G has followed the following path over the past three decades:
1G: Delivered Mobile voice calls
2G: Delivered Mobile voice calls and SMS
3G: Mobile web browsing
4G: Allowed even higher data speeds and mobile consumption
5G: Uncomparable to current speeds. In a series of recent tests in San Francisco, Qualcomm recorded 90% of users achieving download speeds of 186 Mbps- compared to 10 Mbps for the same population on 4G LTE. That means almost instantaneous streaming and downloads. 5G networks also promise users lower latency. This means that mobile devices could now likely handle VR , AR, and MR experiences.
The 5G networks are therefore a considerable improvement over the previous (legacy) generations of cellular technology like 4G LTE which emphasized on taking mobile connectivity to the next level through the delivery of connected experiences from the cloud to clients. The advent of 5G connectivity will also help usher in more mobility by enabling seamless roaming capabilities for users between cellular and Wi-Fi accessibility. Mobile users will be able to stay connected without any user intervention or a need for re-authentication even as they transition between wireless connections and networks inside buildings.
What Impact Could the Rollout of 5G Have on Immersive Experiences and the Evolution of AR/VR?
The general consensus is that 5G is going to have a huge impact on immersive experiences and will play a central role in the mainstreaming of VR and AR. Immersive and other highly interactive graphical applications need massive computing power. As we speak, even the most robust mobile AR/VR hardware still has to grapple with challenges such as limited battery life, limited computing capabilities and overheating. Engineers working on AR/VR hardware are currently eager to tap into the power of next-generation cloud computing and connectivity to minimize the current strain on end-user devices. They hope to accomplish this through the offloading of the more computationally-intensive tasks onto powerful remote servers that will perform the processing and merely relay it to the devices that stream it to your eyes. This has, however, not been possible with the current 4G networks due to the networks and latency constraints which remain prohibitive.
Most of the players in the immersive industry have arrived at the consensus that the industry is unlikely to hit its full market potential under the existing networking and computing infrastructure. The infrastructure itself has put a “cap” on the innovative and mass adoption potential of the industry. This is why many are making a massive bet on 5G. It gets one major infrastructural bottleneck out of the way and paves the way for limitless deployments of AR/VR/MR.
For network operators, this presents a massive business opportunity. Their investments in 5G connectivity not only makes business sense as consumers demand extra computing power and bandwidth for their experiences but it also puts them at the enviable position where they can be catalysts for innovation. Many are already grabbing the opportunity and increasing their coverage across cities in the U.S. and across the globe.
Ushering in a new era of mobility for VR/AR/MR Systems
Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality hardware are now past the novelty era. To achieve mainstream adoption, hardware will need serious computational power and quality. The industry will therefore require head-mounted displays (HMDs) that pack a punch and deliver complex and dynamic graphical interfaces along with more intuitive and interactive user experiences that can’t be delivered via smartphones. In fact, some of the phone-based VR headsets that pioneered immersive reality are already being scrapped by their respective manufacturers to pave way for an untethered future.
Mobility through 5G: Unlocking the Disruptive Potential of HMDs
The AR/VR industry will only attain its disruptive potential when there is more mobility in the operation of the headsets. In industries such as AEC, a degree of mobility is required in the deployment of AR/VR devices across multiple sites. It should, therefore, be possible in the future to power the HMDs without having to avail an instantaneous access to the computing power and content via a tethered PC or console.
Consumers were willing to sacrifice power, quality of experiences, convenience and mobility in the legacy AR/VR headsets because this was a nascent industry and the initial hardware were products literally at the frontiers of innovation. However, that phase is passed now and the present and future consumers will compromise less on their ability to access and share immersive content. We needed a bridge into the future and that opportunity is presented by 5G connectivity.
The future VR consumer will want a more mobile and flexible experience where the connectivity will be wireless without necessarily being ubiquitous. They won’t want to be physically tethered to a PC within a restricted room, particularly in enterprise applications where they have to visit the field or clients often and make presentations. AR experiences, on the other hand, will have to be truly mobile for the AEC industry to integrate into a construction site. A high degree of agility will make AR relevant in both field operations such as in engineering and construction projects as well as in personal computing use-cases that require some mobility. Limitless mobility is required for AR users to seamlessly and meaningfully interact with the environment around them on-demand, anywhere and at any time. Smartphones currently provide for this kind of mobility and connectivity but we will need strong 5G connectivity for these experiences to be truly powerful.
With 5G adoption picking up pace, the future is bright for the AEC industry. The possibility of catalyzing next-generation of compute-intensive and ultra-low latency hardware will take AR/VR technologies to the mainstream and drive a new generation of project planning and modelling that will transform the industry considerably.