There is discussion around 5G technology and its potential to drive the evolution of 5G virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications. Some even say that the future of immersive technology is reliant on the development of a stable 5G network. 5G networks are the next generation of mobile connectivity and bring with them the promise of measurably faster data download and upload speeds, wider coverage areas, and more stable connections for every user, thanks to greater network capacity.
With these improvements at its core, it makes sense that it has also been associated with the newest digital applications and services that are steadily leading us into the world of hyperconnected living. When it comes to the subject of 5G technology, it is expected to have a transformative effect on various aspects of digital connectivity.
This includes technology like connected automotive or driverless cars, the adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) devices, smart manufacturing, immersive technology and all the other consumer tech of the future. And although you may have only just recently started to hear about 5G, the technology has actually been in the works for over a decade.
In fact, NASA and South Korea have been working on 5G mobile communication systems since 2008. But now it’s commercially available, with cellular providers like Vodafone rolling out 5G across selected major cities in Australia and 5G-enabled devices becoming the norm.
But what does 5G really mean for the future of AR and VR?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of VR/AR and 5G, there is some terminology that you will need to know so that you can understand everything we’re about to tell you.
VR is when a user immerses themselves in a virtual, computer-generated environment using a wireless virtual reality headset that completely blocks their view of the real world. It might include the use of other VR devices like gloves fitted with sensors that translate your actual movements into the virtual world.
AR is similar to VR, except that a virtual image is projected on top of a user’s view of the real world. Pokemon Go is a very simplified version of this technology that uses the camera on your phone. With an AR headset or a helmet, you can look at something in the real world, and a digital overlay will give you more info about it without obstructing your view — something you might be familiar with if you’ve watched any futuristic cop movies.
This is the maximum possible rate of data transfer across a given path. You can think of it as the tunnel you use to connect to the internet, with your device being the truck you’re driving and the data being transferred as the load. The higher the bandwidth, the wider the tunnel is. With higher bandwidth, more people can use the tunnel at the same time and/or send bigger loads through the tunnel.
This refers to the responsiveness of a connection and is the time it takes for data to pass from one point on a network to another. If we use the truck and tunnel analogy again, you can imagine it as the time it takes your truck to carry your load to its destination and return to you.
Clicking a link on a website would be sending the truck into the tunnel, and the web page would load on your device when the truck returns to you. So that delay where a video is buffering, or when a web page takes forever to load, is caused by high latency or lack of available bandwidth.
Cloud computing refers to a variety of computing services that are housed at a central online location. These services can take a variety of forms, including storage (like Google Drive), remote servers, software (like Microsoft 365), databases, analytics, networking and intelligence. They can also offer flexible resources, faster innovation and more affordable solutions.
You can think of edge computing as cloud computing’s sibling, and it refers to the concept of bringing remote computer services closer to the user, where the data is being generated, rather than using a central location. If you picture a bicycle wheel, the cloud, or the main data centre, is the hub/axle in the centre, and the rim or tyre (the area outside of the spokes) is the edge where smaller data centres that are closer to you or the user.
5G is the 5th generation of wireless technology. And with it comes higher bandwidth and higher network capacity (wider tunnels), lower latency (faster, more responsive connections), more stable and reliable connections (less signal loss) and a more uniform user experience for everyone. Here’s how that affects VR and AR technology.
There is a common misconception that 5G’s low latency will have an impact on streaming non-interactive 180 or 360 video content. These are videos where you can turn your head to look at the environment around you — but just like a normal video, you press play and simply go along for the ride.
However, the head-tracking and visual adjustments for the majority of today’s noninteractive AR and VR video content is processed right on the device. You turning your head isn’t like clicking a link on a website. This means you don’t have to wait for it to send a signal to a remote server requesting the updated scene, then wait some more while it loads on your VR headset.
The higher bandwidth of 5G, however, will have an impact. This is because full volumetric video or 360 3D video, which is the most immersive footage available, is incredibly bandwidth-intensive. Most users do not have a connection that supports streaming this type of high-quality content, so it is used sparingly. This will change once 5G networks expand beyond major city centres, though.
Most commonly known as Web-based eXtended Reality, WebXR is the umbrella term used to refer to both augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as whatever comes from the combination of the two technologies. As it is web-based, there are no apps or software involved, and you access the content directly from a web browser like Chrome.
We mentioned Pokemon Go as an example of an AR application — in this YouTube video, you can see an example of a WebAR experience. In it, musician Rita Ora ‘appeared’ in users’ homes, and the link to her AR ‘Mini Me’ experience was available on her Instagram. Now the challenge with this is essentially the same as what streaming immersive video faces.
We’ve all had those days where we ‘channel hop’ through YouTube and Facebook videos on our devices. If they take too long to load (or buffer), we can skip straight to the next one. In some cases, we’ll even switch to another app completely. But with sufficient bandwidth, your content consumption becomes more fluid because you don’t have to wait as long for it.
Since WebXR content isn’t pre-downloaded like an application is, these experiences have to be small in size. With higher bandwidth, it will be possible to create WebXR experiences that are larger and have more detail. And jumping from one WebXR experience to another becomes more seamless.
In short — greater bandwidth can make WebXR content more ‘snackable’.
Now, this discussion is the one where the majority of hype around 5G VR exists. The use case everyone is presenting goes something like this: In the future, you can own a simple, inexpensive 5G VR headset and stream highend interactive VR and AR graphics directly from the cloud with no high-end PC required.
The idea is amazing. However, it would take an enormous amount of graphical rendering to synchronise the real world (including your movements) and the virtual world. On a computer, your RAM would handle this rapid back-and-forth transfer of data as you move your head around. With VR and AR headsets, this process is split between your PC and the headset.
If we’re going to start talking about cloud rendering, though, it is latency that becomes an issue. The bare minimum needed to enjoy a normal non-VR game is 50ms latency. However, the bare minimum for a VR game is 20ms latency; anything more than that causes the user to feel nauseous. Now 5G is promising an average latency of around 10ms.
But latency increases the farther you are away from the location where the content you are trying to access is being rendered. You can test it now and run a normal speed test here. We got a 20ms ping, which is our latency to the nearest server. Now use this one to check your latency to London. This time it was 397ms.
What this means in basic terms is that fully cloud-rendered interactive VR and AR gaming is nothing more than a hypothetical right now. So AR and VR game streaming, which demands even higher resolutions and lower latency, will need to mature first.
And once it has, the dream of an inexpensive headset that allows us to stream interactive VR and AR content from any location will only be viable when combined with edge computing.
A 5G network has the potential to change how we use the internet. It is offering download speeds of up to 1 Gbps (approximately 125 MB per second), which translates into you being able to download a full HD Blu-ray quality movie in just two minutes.
An average latency of just 10ms means you won’t have to wait for those 20 browser windows you have open to load every time you switch between them — something you will probably do while researching the best VR headsets to buy right now.
And with a better network capacity that can support up to 1 million devices per square kilometre, you likely won’t experience those peak time lags or congestion periods that cannot handle all the connections being made.
The question then becomes about viability. How much would you be willing to pay for the amount of data you’d need, and will it be enough to cover the cost of offering this type of 5G VR or AR service?
Easily accessible AR and VR content is coming — as is the future of VR headsets. But whether 5G will make this a reality is still unclear, as we won’t know exactly what type of speeds and latency individual users will enjoy until 5G network technology has been rolled out at scale, or what type of costs fully interactive VR and AR streaming will involve until they become more mainstream.
But at the end of the day, even if your 5G connection delivers latency and speeds at the lower end of the spectrum, it can still drastically improve your everyday online experience.
Vodafone’s 5G Network is progressively being rolled out to selected parts of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth. 5G approved device required, with an eligible Vodafone plan, in a Vodafone 5G Coverage area to access the 5G Network. In non-5G coverage areas, you’ll automatically switch to our 4G networks. Actual speeds vary due to location & network congestion. Check coverage and for updates when 5G is coming to your area on our 5G network support page.