How 5G could cause ‘dumb’ wearable devices to mushroom

Jamie Carter By Jamie Carter 2 November 2017

5G WearablesVia Shutterstock

Do wearable devices need 5G? The current generation activity trackers and smartwatches probably don’t, but that will change with the introduction of 5G networks – and it’s got little to do with speed.

Our new in-depth guide reveals, it’s not about bandwidth. 5G mobile networks are likely to offer download speeds of 20Gbps, much faster than current 4G networks. However, 5G devices are likely to have two modes; low-power, long-life, small messaging mode, and high-speed, high bandwidth mode.

As the guide makes clear, the latter is more likely to be restricted to specific geographically-defined places, such as factories, offices and at public events, where high-frequency signals in the millimetre wave frequency band can bring extra bandwidth. That could be a factor for some wearables – probably heads-up displays (HUD) for industrial use – but for most consumer wearables, the key feature of 5G networks will be their low latency.

5G networks will allow wearable devices to communicate in less than one millisecond, which is around 50 times quicker than 4G networks. It’s that huge reduction that will allow real-time communication and control; wearable devices will thus be able to steer a car, or pilot a drone.

However, the guides stresses that the future of wearable devices in the 5G era is very much up for grabs. The industry is yet to coalesce around the basic specifications of 5G networks, and we don't know what a 5G chipset in a 5G wearable would look like. Advances in materials science and antenna design are likely to produce ever-smaller wearables that use innovations like software-defined radio, and even wearable antennas for ‘smart clothes’.

Those space-saving advances are key because another key factor of wearables in the 5G era will be the networks’ ability to connect to thousands of wearables and sensors per square kilometre, far more than is possible right now. That’s thanks to the fact that 5G will use much smaller microcells.

The guide reveals that 5G could mean ‘dumb’ wearables. With 5G, wearable devices will be ‘always on’, and permanently connected to the network, thereby able to offload not just storage capacity and apps to the cloud, but also remotely accessing computer processing power, and even big data analytics.

How 5G will change wearables is an unknown, and very much dependent on emerging use-cases and innovations that are yet to appear. However, it seems certain that in an era of ultra-reliable, low-latency real-time communications, a new class of device will emerge to enable the hyper-connected internet of everything; the 5G wearable. 

Our new Guide: How Will Wearables Like Smartwatches and Trackers Use 5G?

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