Extended Reality: The Operator Opportunity

Strong potential in moves to couple extended reality and 5G

5G is a topic of considerable debate, with opinion polarized between the transformative impact it will have on devices, people, society and the economy, and a technology whose potential some people insist is vastly exaggerated. This is common with any new technology, but history shows that with the necessary tools in place, the market innovates and change becomes inevitable.

One area that I believe is overlooked is the scope to transform experiences beyond those powered by smartphones. We’re witnessing the rapid expansion of uses in products of other shapes and sizes, and 5G connectivity is poised to bring significant benefits to virtual, augmented and mixed reality, collectively known as extended reality or XR.

Although the various XR technologies are well-established, a sea change in form factor is arriving as the pieces of the jigsaw come together. So far, headsets have typically been bulky, heavy and somewhat uncomfortable, but recent designs that use a smartphone as a processing unit point to devices becoming slimmer and sleeker than ever before. I expect this trend to receive a boost as 5G networks mature over the coming years. More and more of the computing power needed for attractive XR experiences will shift to the cloud, with networks providing the capacity and throughput required.

This presents a huge opportunity for operators around the world to use exciting new XR devices to highlight their 5G services. This echoes a concept presented by Qualcomm at MWC 2019 of XR viewers tethered to 5G smartphones. Multiple companies have already introduced support for XR solutions based on 5G, with some beginning to place emphasis on the technology in their advertising. Similarly, operators continue to experiment with dedicated virtual reality devices as content and capability mature. As predicted, we’re seeing the emergence of an XR continuum.

The consumer space has been the focus of a lot of moves in the past few months. In the UK, Vodafone used the Magic Leap mixed reality glasses in a promotional video to trumpet its 5G service, and EE has placed the Nreal Light augmented reality glasses at the centre of a similar campaign, also highlighting the ability of smartphones to act as windows into augmented reality content. O2 advertised the launch of its 5G network by giving customers on premium tariffs a free Oculus Go virtual reality headset to watch free live-streams of concerts through a partnership with MelodyVR. In Japan, KDDI has gone a step further by partnering with Nreal to customize Nreal Light for the Japanese market. Indeed, KDDI was present on the Nreal stand at CES 2020 as part of a joint demonstration.

Similar initiatives in South Korea from KT, LG Uplus and SK Telecom have seen headsets bundled with new 5G tariffs, with “killer” content such as sports channels in virtual and augmented reality used to demonstrate network capabilities. LG Uplus has also signed an exclusive deal with Nreal to launch its augmented reality glasses later in 2020. Finnish network Elisa is working with virtual reality headset maker Varjo to broadcast content over 5G, which it claims will match the quality of human eye resolution. There’s also interest from operators with fixed-line capabilities, such as KT and Reliance Jio, in leaning on XR to showcase their fibre deployments and provide another new and innovative vehicle for content.

Uses for 5G in the enterprise market are also intertwined with opportunities in XR. Deutsche Telekom has confirmed collaborations with Qualcomm, 6D.ai and Nreal to support AR FieldAdvisor services, a solution for remote support for field engineers. BT performed a live demonstration of its 5G network in Belfast, which will enable a smart port; working with Ubimax and VRtuoso, the operator showed how augmented reality will support maintenance workers. And in the US, Verizon recently deployed its 5G Ultra Wideband service at Newport News Shipbuilding, Virginia; one of the stated benefits of the deal is easy wireless access to augmented and virtual reality technologies for engineers, allowing them to carry out activities from architectural design to employee training.

In a fiercely competitive market, it’s not surprising that some operators are moving quickly to embrace XR as a differentiator. XR and 5G are exciting new technologies that are evolving rapidly, so it’s essential that operators experiment with them to find new services, rather than sitting passively on the sidelines.

Building strong ecosystem partnerships will be vital, as XR experiences work best with tight integration throughout the value chain, ensuring a high-quality offering in hardware and software. Companies at the forefront of XR adoption will have the greatest chance to build a strong, attractive solution with the right partners. Those that wait may find that they’ve missed the opportunity. In a 5G climate where operators are seeking revenue diversification into services, now is the time to understand the potential.

I’m confident that XR will be an important part of the conversation at the upcoming MWC 2020. It will be fascinating to see how operators navigate the major role they have in the future of this technology.

A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 6 February 2020.