Why will you need 5G?

Sure, it’s going to be a lot faster. But 5G is about a lot more than just speed. It will ultimately establish a platform for entirely new things you’ve never seen before.

One of the coolest opportunities with 5G will be augmented reality and virtual reality, often called AR/VR.

You might remember this tech from a variety of not-quite-ready-for-primetime deployments back in the 1990s. More recently, we’ve seen several promising new AR/VR systems with much better graphics and more responsive motion controls.

But many of these new headsets and goggles still suffer from issues that might keep them stuck in the tech enthusiast category.

For example, with systems that are powered entirely by a smartphone clipped inside a headset, the constraints of the phone often result in less-detailed graphics or limited battery life.

More powerful, standalone AR/VR systems solve those problems, but at the expense of either bulky computing equipment worn on a belt or backpack, or a tangle of cables tethered to a computer.

So how do you get great performance in a truly mobile AR/VR system?

We think the answer will be edge computing and 5G.

Generating high-end computer graphics in the cloud for gaming and other interactive applications isn’t a new idea. Cloud gaming companies have been trying to solve this puzzle for years. What will be different soon is 5G. 5G is expected to solve the biggest problem that graphics-intensive cloud gaming apps have struggled to address – the problem of latency.

Latency is the time it takes from when you request something from the network to when it responds. High latency rates aren’t a problem on many applications. If it takes a second for your Netflix video to show up on your screen after you hit play, it might be annoying, but it doesn’t ruin the experience.

But with AR/VR, even a half-second delay can be literally nauseating if you turn your head and the streamed image on your goggles or headset is struggling to keep up.

If you’re going to run AR/VR apps in the cloud, latency rates must be low enough to keep what your eyes are seeing synced with your physical movements. There’s even a term for this relationship: motion-to-photon (MTP) latency.

In a recent paper, researchers at the Centre for Wireless Communications at the University of Oulu, Finland, the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, and Nokia Bell Labs found that latency rates of less than 10 milliseconds are ideal for seamless AR/VR experiences.

As they note, only 5G can accommodate those kinds of latency requirements:

“High MTP values send conflicting signals to the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR), a dissonance that might lead to motion sickness. There is broad consensus in setting the upper bound for MTP to less than 15-20 ms. Meanwhile, the loopback latency of 4G under ideal operation conditions is 25 ms.”

As they point out, to do AR/VR in the cloud, you will need 5G.

Indeed, we’re already seeing latency rates below 10 milliseconds in our fixed 5G trials.

But even with 5G, you can lose that low-latency advantage if the cloud facilities processing your AR/VR data are thousands of miles away. As distance increases and your data hopscotches across multiple routers and switches, latency goes up.

So with edge computing, we’ll put the processing capability near our towers, small cells and other facilities just a few miles away from our users.

5G on the edge will open entirely new worlds. Applications that simply weren’t possible before.

We think AR/VR will be one of the big initial uses for this new platform. Beyond gaming, AR/VR could enable remote medical surgery, workforce training, virtual assistants for professional and personal use, and more.

No backpack required.

Andre Fuetsch is president of AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer

Andre Fuetsch
Andre Fuetsch President – AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer