The pandemic has pushed us toward an era of being able to work seamlessly from anywhere. It created the necessity for new ways of people-to-people, people-to-application and machine-to-machine interactions, and solutions that make us feel like we are there with other people and physical objects.
We already see applications for augmented reality in businesses like ours for field services to enable experts to remotely assist customers or technicians in the field. But the technology is sensitive to network latencies and hungry for bandwidth, and thus, still limited.
In the meantime, 5G is coming with the promise of higher bandwidth, ultra-low latency and the ultimate connectivity of devices. Nokia, in a survey of 3,000 users, identified immersive experiences as one of five key 5G-enabling use cases. 5G — along with the current advances in virtual, augmented and mixed reality; digital twins; and the futuristic AR cloud — all point to a convergence where interactive, immersive environments will likely become reality, beyond gaming and entertainment.
What before seemed futuristic or unrealistic may now, in our current pandemic environment, seem within reach.
Connectivity based on 5G will enable the exchange, compute and processing of massive amounts of data on devices, near devices and all the way to the cloud. 5G can make all this happen much faster than previous iterations of cellular technology.
Recent reports indicate that leading cellular providers have shown 5G speeds surging past 1 Gbps — 10 to 100 times faster than typical cellular connections. Also, 5G latency can be as little as 1 millisecond, while lag time on current networks can last up to 20 milliseconds.
Although we've been hearing about this new connectivity technology for years, all the major cellular carriers are still working to build out their 5G networks. The devices aren't quite there yet, and we don't really know cost points and acceptance rates. Last summer, Gartner predicted that 5G is two to five years away from the plateau of productivity in which real-world benefits of a technology are demonstrated and accepted.
What 5G-Enabled Immersive Experiences Will Look Like
Media reports suggest that gaming will be one of the first industries to benefit from 5G, but eventually, that will spill into new modes of training, marketing, customer-product interfaces and applications for remote collaboration, troubleshooting, maintenance and repairs.
There are different immersive experiences. Virtual reality immerses a human in a completely digital world. Interactions with other humans are through digital avatars. This type of immersive interaction is well suited for complex training scenarios in a controlled and safe simulation environment.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, overlays digital information on physical objects or environments. Users can see both at the same time within a shared context. For example, field technicians out on a job can call experts through digital eyewear or handheld devices. Experts can then guide technicians through processes or help them find something on equipment in the field by using the digital overlay to point at an area or component, or suggest an action.
Mixed reality is a further blending of the physical and digital worlds. This lets the user visualize and interact with digital information like 3D overlays on real-time data. In this case, digital objects are integrated, not superimposed. For example, toymaker Mattel is using Microsoft HoloLens to enable its designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers from around the world to come together in a spatial project room to reduce the need for travel and ensure alignment across disciplines.
Digital twins, meanwhile, deliver virtual replicas of physical devices. They can use input from sensors gathering data from a real-world counterpart, simulate a physical system prior to its construction, or do a combination of the two. A digital twin enables companies to run simulations before systems are built or modified and deployed. Digital twins support what-if scenario testing in a way that is noninvasive to the physical world.
The ultimate (and farthest out) immersive experience of the future will be enabled by the augmented reality (AR) cloud. AR cloud platforms promise to enable us to travel in and out of different virtual and physical worlds in a seamless way. Information and experiences can then be augmented and shared and persist across apps and devices.
Organizations Should Prepare For The Immersive Experience
Business leaders can use this time to understand how immersive experiences fueled by the coming of 5G will likely affect their businesses in multiple dimensions. The availability of more immersive experiences will likely change both customer and employee expectations.
Immersive workspaces will create collaborative work environments that convey a sense of real-world presence, that feeling of being in the same room as others. Employees are going to expect better interactions, processes and procedures. Videoconferencing might not cut it forever.
Product experiences will also change. Today's product interfaces are 2D visual experiences, with some spoken or written language interfaces. As experiences become more immersive, customers will expect to interact differently with products, using a mixed mode of natural language and nonverbal gestures, such as pointing and eye tracking.
I recommend businesses examine how this will alter enterprise infrastructure requirements. Speeds in indoor spaces have to match the 5G network speeds. There will be more devices to enable immersive interactions. There will be new security and data privacy implications that drive IT and cybersecurity planning.
It's a whole new world. Immersive technologies, enabled by 5G, may serve not only to bring us safely back "together" but also take our digital experiences to the next level, and beyond.