This article originally appeared on The Washington Post.
This is the third release in a four-part series about Qualcomm’s role in realizing the future of 5G. Click here to read Part 1: A homegrown revolution and Part 2: The making of an economic renaissance.
David Cole knows more about the human eye than most people in the entertainment industry. He needs to in order to keep his business humming. Cole co-founded NextVR nearly a decade ago. Specializing in broadcasting live events in 360-degree virtual reality (VR) environments, the company allows consumers to experience being in the front row of their favorite sporting event or concert by just putting on a headset. The firm has broadcast everything from professional basketball games to stand-up from inside the Gotham Comedy Club. But it’s not easy creating that type of viewing fidelity—largely because technology is still being outdone by basic anatomy. The human eye can detect movement at a rate that can’t normally be replicated by virtual reality footage, notes Cole. The difference makes it much harder to create immersive experiences that are photorealistic. To bridge the gap, innovators like Cole need to be able to share massive amounts of data, continuously and instantaneously, which simply isn’t possible with current wireless infrastructure.
“There are certain conditions that need to be met for VR to be a regular fabric of use,” he said, noting that the challenges extend to VR creators working in other fields, such as medicine, retail and architecture, as well. “We’re not there yet.”
That is about to change, however, with the advent of the next-generation 5G wireless network, one of the most promising new tech advances on the horizon. The first wave of the 5G upgrade, which will be rolled out for smartphones in 2019, is a crucial breakthrough for innovators in a range of emerging technology fields, virtual reality included, says Rasmus Hellberg, senior director for technical marketing at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., a global company leader in mobile and wireless technology breakthroughs. “The first wave of 5G will bring an enhanced user experience, primarily for smartphone users,” he noted. “But there is a broader 5G opportunity on the horizon, such as delivering photorealistic VR and AR immersion.”
In other words, Cole is just one of many readying for this revolutionary wireless transition. Creators working with a range of technologies—from immersive reality to robotics to the Internet of Things (IoT)—are ready to leverage improved network performance to form the foundation of a new era of invention.
Tomorrow’s cellular fabric
The 21st century has been defined by massive digital leaps, everything from social media to self-driving cars. But these transformative innovations could never have come to fruition without Qualcomm’s own groundbreaking creations. These developments—technologies such as CDMA and LTE—helped form the wireless network, establishing the foundation for the digital innovations to come.
In recent years, Qualcomm has been working on innovations that comprise this cellular fabric, which in turn support an expansion to new use cases and new industries. Known as 5G, this breakthrough will be transformational for America’s next generation of creators, notes Avi Reichental CEO of XponentialWorks, a California technology investment and development firm.
“Although we already live in a reality of ubiquitous connectivity,” he said, “speed and coverage are still lagging far behind.”
5G will provide faster Internet with lower latency, the time it takes for data to travel within a network. It will also allow for more consistent connectivity. Qualcomm is helping to realize these benefits by bringing a series of products to market that will help make the network upgrade a reality. In July 2018, for example, the company announced two new antennae modules for smart phones that are fully 5G integrated. The result is a wireless infrastructure that can support the demands of a new era of invention. Reichental compares the advent of 5G to large-scale energy development in the 20th century. In the same way, he argues, that fuel abundance drove breakthroughs in a range of industrial sectors, such as transportation and manufacturing, the next generation wireless network will power diverse digital innovation—everything from the computerization of physical objects to artificial intelligence.
“When you contemplate the countless products and services that depend on connectivity and reliable user experience,” said Reichental, “the question is: what will not be positively impacted or disrupted by 5G?”
He’s not alone in this vision. According to a recent Qualcomm survey, over 90 percent of U.S. opinion leaders believe 5G will enable people to invent novel products and services. Nearly as many respondents argued that the shift will yield entirely new industries.
“If you look at 5G,” noted Hellberg, “It has the flexibility to support services that haven’t even been imagined today.”
Unlocking machine learning
One existing industry primed for innovation is robotics. Today, smart machines are extremely adept at performing perfunctory tasks, such as screwing in car doors or moving boxes around a warehouse. What’s harder, though, is programming robots to manage assignments with variable specifications and challenges—say, picking up a strawberry.
“We’ve been trying to solve this problem,” said Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics.
The Massachusetts-based company develops agricultural robots, which use a visual recognition system to identify the type and placement of fruits and vegetables for harvest. The system relies on the constant sharing of data between machines. Through trial and error, one robot gains intelligence on the nuance of handling a strawberry, for example; this information is then broadcast throughout a network. Little by little, the entire fleet improves its ability to effectively pick one type of object, even though it can vary in size, shape and position.
“That’s where ubiquitous connectivity is very important,” Vause said. 5G will make this more seamless, allowing intelligence—the abilitiy for the machines to gain skills through the analysis of data—to be distributed on equipment itself.
Vause notes that his operations require seamless communication between robots and humans, as well. The fleet is overseen by remote human supervisors, who help the robots identify if a piece of produce isn’t fit to pick. Often based in another part of the country from the machines they oversee, the supervisors can’t work effectively if there is a communication lag or the signal drops. “With 5G, that goes away and you can teach the robot,” he said.
Hellberg added that one of the key benefits for automation, whether in agricultural or industrial settings, will be the ability of robots to be completely wirelessly connected. 5G brings an extremely reliable and low latency link that can be used to control mission critical machinery—without the cables that they’ve traditionally required.
This optimism extends to the industry at large. Creators—and the funders that seed them—are gearing up for the next stage of innovation in the automation space. In 2016 alone, nearly $2 billion in funding reportedly went to robotics start-ups. These creators are banking on a wireless network that can help them deliver on the advances they have in development.
“We need 5G coverage,” Vause says. “The future of robotics is connectivity.”
The silver bullet to virtual reality
Like Vause, Cole sees the network upgrade as transformational for his business. Better speed and network capacity combined with lower latency all work to improve the photorealism of the immersive environment. “5G wireless is the critical link to virtual reality’s success. No question. Full stop,” he said.
This breakthrough has implications for VR entrepreneurship beyond entertainment. Imagine products that could allow doctors to use a headset to perform complex medical procedures or first responders to utilize rescue drones during an emergency, Cole says. And investors are taking notice. In all, tech companies working with AR and VR innovations raised more than $3 billion in funding in 2017.
Within the entertainment sector, Cole sees this innovation establishing a whole new normal for watching live events. Fans could have headsets at home that allow them to have the virtual experience of sitting courtside. At sports bars, big screen TVs could be swapped out for wearable AR devices. Photorealistic immersive experiences will be possible with just a WiFi connection locally—supported on devices as ubiquitous as a mobile phone.
“For these photorealistic experiences on sleek, mobile headsets, you need 5G,” noted Hellberg. “We call it boundless extended reality, because you can use it everywhere.”
It won’t be long, he predicts, until creators have the tools to deliver on that vision.
“5G in itself is a platform for innovation that will serve our connectivity needs for the next decade and beyond,” he said.