How will 5G boost VR and AR?

5G Virtual reality

Tomorrow’s augmented and virtual reality applications will lean heavily on a fully functioning 5G network.

5G will bring about a massive boost to mobile data performance and stability. One of the big beneficiaries - and drivers - of this improvement will be VR and AR. Here’s how.

What is VR and AR?

You’re probably aware that VR stands for Virtual Reality. This is the practice of putting people into fully immersive computer-simulated worlds through specially constructed headsets.

AR, on the other hand, stands for Augmented Reality. This is built on similar technology to VR, but instead of creating a complete digital reality closed off from the physical world it layers digital elements over the top. Think of a HUD in a modern fighter jet, or the Pokemon battling on your local park bench in Pokemon GO.

Both VR and AR have emerged as major markets in recent years thanks to advances in mobile and computer technology. ABI Research estimates the total AR market will reach $114 billion by 2021, while the total VR market will reach $65 billion within the same timeframe.

What does 5G have to do with VR and AR?

Many experts within the industry believe that the arrival of the next generation of mobile network, widely referred to as 5G, will unlock the full potential of VR and AR technology. Current 4G network standards severely curtail what can be done thanks to limitations in bandwidth, latency, and uniformity (which means the consistency of a mobile connection across the country).

The complex worlds and sophisticated input mechanisms of VR and AR experiences require a lot of data to be processed. This is fine for local applications, but if you want to feed in data remotely it can place a strain on a network. That’s particularly so if the user is on the move or away from a fixed internet connection.

This is where 5G’s significantly faster speeds and lower latency will come to the fore. ABI Research anticipates that 5G will bring about “a 10X improvement in throughout, a 10X decrease in latency, a 100X improvement in traffic capacity, and a 100X improvement in network efficiency” over 4G.

What are some examples of VR and AR applications that would benefit from 5G?

The aforementioned quote comes from a recent Qualcomm-commissioned ABI Research white paper entitled ‘Augmented and Virtual Reality: The First Wave of 5G ‘Killer’ Apps’. This paper highlights the potential synergy between 5G and VR/AR technology.

ABI’s white paper list four potential use case scenarios:

  • The streaming of VR and particularly AR content to vehicles. It’s expected that autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles will become the norm over the coming decade or so, which will open the possibility of AR and VR content to be streamed in to the car. This will require 5G’s additional bandwidth and mobility.
  • Live streaming a sporting event over social media, utilising VR to make the feed truly immersive. There will necessarily be a very high density of users within a confined space, which 5G should be able to handle.
  • Forthcoming video formats will be much more data-intensive than present examples thanks to VR and AR applications. The likes of interactive 6 degrees of freedom (6DoF) video, which allow you to move around within recorded videos, can require up to 10X the bitrate required for 4K video.
  • Increasing complexity in remote control devices. Added demand for the ability to control devices remotely, as well as the greater sophistication through haptic feedback in the so-called ‘Tactile Internet,’ will require much lower latency from a mobile network.

How will VR and AR drive 5G adoption?

In one vital way, VR and AR applications could actively drive 5G adoption in its early stages: video.

As we’ve mentioned already, the next generation of video formats will be much more data-intensive than current standards, necessitating a much better mobile network environment. Part of this will be down to new standards such as HDR (High Dynamic Range) and high frame rates of 90fps and above (which is essential for super-smooth slo-mo videos).

But VR applications like 360-degree video will necessitate higher resolutions of 8K and above, and stereoscopic video (which separates left and right eye views in VR) also requires additional bandwidth. Meanwhile, the 6DoF video mentioned above will add extra strain with its translational movement capabilities.

It will be the widespread use of such video formats among smartphone users that will place a great strain on even advanced 4G networks. What’s more, many envision the near-future introduction of a mainstream wearable AR device that’s designed to be worn all day, and is constantly connected to the internet. ABI Research anticipates that there will be 48 million such AR smart glasses in operation by 2021.

All together this will mean an exponential increase in data demands on our mobile networks, which will help push the adoption of 5G.

When will we see the benefits?

While 5G won’t commence its public roll-out until 2020, ABI Research points out that the foundations for mobile network-assisted AR and VR applications will be laid this year.

This will come in the form of ubiquitous 4G coverage with so-called Gigabit Class speed, which is expected to commence commercial roll-out in 2017. 5G will eventually build on top of this by leveraging more spectral bands and wider bandwidths to boost capacity.

Useful reading: What is 5G?

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