Mobile Operators Step into Extended Reality and the Metaverse

The biggest leaps forward in technology are rarely just about hardware or software. A breakthrough usually brings a new type of device, as well as a whole new suite of uses and applications that open up new computing possibilities. But to ensure the best possible user experience, we need ever-more powerful connectivity.

Right now, I’m fascinated by what’s happening in extended reality, or XR for short. This is a term used to refer to virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) as well as mixed reality. We’re seeing more and more capable and affordable VR and AR devices being built and released, with lots of ways to use them in consumer and business settings. These headsets look set to grow in number and popularity over the coming years and will usher in a new age of online experiences based on spatial computing.

Many people refer to this as the metaverse and expect it to herald an era of computing where we use XR devices for everything from socializing to working to entertainment.

Still, for the metaverse vision to become reality, connectivity is an essential piece of the puzzle. This is particularly true when it comes to delivering immersive experiences in public locations, where thousands of people may want to experience the same rich immersive content at the same time. To deliver this sort of spatial computing at scale globally, networks capable of supplying huge capacity and throughput are seen as essential; as such, 5G is often highlighted as a vital technology for driving this field forward. These conversations naturally lead us to consider the role of the network operators that underpin this technology.

Ahead of this year’s MWC in Barcelona, I spoke to a range of network operators about how they’re working with XR and how they view this emerging space. This includes global names such as China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, KDDI, NTT Qonoq, Orange, Telefonica, T-Mobile, Verizon and Vodafone.

My conversations with these operators have been revealing; all the names listed above have already made strides into the XR space and are thinking strategically about how to capitalize on it. There’s no doubt that they have a key role to play in the future of spatial computing as they will provide the backbone of the metaverse, but what’s notable is that they’re keen to move well beyond the role of connectivity provider. As important as the 5G element is in the spatial computing revolution, leading operators want to do more than just provide connections.

The most active telecom providers are thinking about how to navigate the transition to XR so that they can maximize their role in the ecosystem and prevent some of the defining characteristics of the smartphone era — such as closed ecosystems and fragmentation — from repeating themselves. They’re working with companies throughout the value chain, from device-makers to developers, to play a part in shaping the immersive landscape.

The discussions have been fascinating and my findings are published in The Operator Opportunity: Extended Reality and the Metaverse. I extend my thanks to all the operators that were involved in discussions for this report, and to Qualcomm for supporting this research. You can read the full report by filling in the form below.

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