Sara Ghaemi is the Director of Technical Development at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological developments, like Beamforming, Massive MIMO and designing for 5G.
Augmented reality (AR) has been around for years, but among the successes – both consumer and enterprise – there have been many core challenges that have inhibited AR takeup. However, 5G looks set to solve some of the greatest of these challenges, as well as enable new compelling functionality – a combination that is attracting considerable interest to a sector that has seen plenty of hype over the years. It has also seen fragmentation too, with early VR (virtual reality) creating completely simulated environments, AR superimposing data on existing real-world environments, and more recently MR, where real and virtual worlds merge, allowing physical and digital objects to interact with each other in the same space. These have become known collectively as extended reality (XR).
There has been significant success in the XR sector too, with a host of enterprise sector deployments, in applications ranging from Industry 4.0 digital twins, location- based VR (LBVR) and remote learning tools. Consumer-facing AR apps like the acclaimed Pokemon Go, which hit the headlines and gained a huge install base, raising approximately $6 billion in revenue certainly blazed a trail too. In fact, recent research by ARtillery Intelligence estimated that there were 598 million active AR active devices at the end of 2020 and predicted that this total would increase to 1.73 billion by 2024. Further out in the timeline, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report from 2019 estimated that 23 million jobs will actively utilise AR and VR by 2030.
Edge computing, 5G and low-latency
Part of that growth trajectory is inextricably linked to 5G rollout, for a number of reasons. Creating AR experiences comes with considerable technical challenges. As the aim is to combine and synchronise the real world, the actions of the user and a digital world, a huge amount of graphical rendering is required. This is extremely compute-intensive, and has been one of the most resilient challenges in the XR field, requiring designers to balance battery capacity, weight, and heat dissipation in a small form factor – in many cases a wearable one to boot. This challenge can be alleviated significantly by shifting some of that heavy lifting to the cloud, or processing at the edge.
The latter is enormously preferable, as latency is a real killer, not only of the user experience itself – the dreaded ‘break in immersion’ – but also of the usability of the system in an enterprise environment. The ability to augment latency-sensitive on-device head tracking, hand and controller tracking with rendering on the edge is known as split rendering. While this is an effective method of blending enormously complex data streams from real-world sensors and the cloud, a robust and low-latency 5G wireless connection is a vital component.
mMIMO and a 6G future
The low latency, high reliability and high bandwidth of a 5G connection relies on a few key technologies, most notably beamforming and mMIMO, or ‘massive MIMO’, which enable vast numbers of devices to be efficiently targeted by each base station. Interestingly, these technologies are highly likely to remain a vital part of next-generation wireless networks, through 5G Advanced and into 6G. Indeed, a recent whitepaper from the 5G Infrastructure Association singles out VR as being an area of high demand: “One of the biggest promises of the next decade is that immersive communication, holographic telepresence and AR/VR will become our default way of communication. It is commonly agreed that the ideal quality for such an immersive experience will require 8k video resolution per eye. To support this kind of application we expect that 6G will have to deliver end user experienced data rates up to 10 Gbits/s.”
Guaranteed resources – network slicing
Another key technology in 5G NR that will have a substantial impact on the viability of AR, VR and MR (mixed reality) business models is network slicing, which ensures that network resources are reserved for time-critical services. In addition to network tools such as admission control and latency-optimised scheduling, network slicing offers specific benefits for enterprise AR and MR applications, such as training or engineering and maintenance, where congestion-related delays could be particularly onerous.
XR- into the future
The widely-accepted fact is that XR has the potential to transform a host of business processes and – to no lesser extent – large areas of social interaction too. Although a variety of technical barriers have hindered widespread adoption to date, there are promising signs of a breakthrough, thanks to 5G’s time-critical communication capabilities and low latency.
One such pilot project is an EE and BT Sport-led project called 5G Edge-XR, which is beginning to demonstrate real-world XR enhancements to sports including MotoGP and rugby, creating a more immersive experience. In parallel, a partnership between Verizon and Bourne Identity director Doug Liman’s 30 Ninjas studio will see a 5G-powered AR ‘adventure thriller’ game called Helios launched for Android and iOS 5G-capable smartphones this autumn. The barriers to mainstream XR adoption are beginning to crumble – both literally and figuratively.
Long time reader, first time contributor. Love technology and the great outdoors. Looking forward to discussing everything beyond 5G and the future of wireless technology!