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MWC 2018: The Internet's Interface Will Be AR/VR Thanks to 5G
"AI will be woven into every aspect of our lives" as the 5G-enabled cloud takes prominence and phones diminish in importance.

The mass availability of high-speed connectivity combined with increased processing power and advances in artificial intelligence will see augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) become the interface to the internet, executives at Mobile World Congress 2018 predicted. At the same time, the smart phone will fade in significance.

“Immersive computing is the future,” declared Adrienne McCallister, Google’s director of global VR AR Partnerships. “AR and VR make computing more intuitive, more natural. If we look back at the history of the internet from PC to mobile and now immersive computing we’ve made the internet easier to use, more accessible.”

For all the razzamatazz devoted to the launch of each new smart phone—including Samsung's Galaxy S9+ release—there are widespread predictions—handset vendors included—that the metal and glass supercomputer in our pocket will be yesterday’s technology within the decade.

“AR VR will be the new interface to computers when combined with 5G and AI,” said Rikard Steiber, president of Viveport and senior vice president of virtual reality at HTC Vive. “You have to move a lot of the network from the device into the cloud. As more and more processing are done in the cloud you don’t need to have a massive personal device to store it.”

Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm agreed: “Today, the smartphone is at the centre of the connected ecosystem, but things will look very different in a 5G world. The fragmentation on the device-side will be larger than it is today with different form factors. Connectivity will be in wearables and in sensors.”

HTC’s co-founder and chairwoman Cher Wang talked up 5G-based virtual reality as the future of content that could provide mobile experiences to transform the whole mobile industry.

“5G reduces the need for device-based computing power. Cloud computing over 5G will enable every single VR and AR terminal to be the most powerful device in the world,” she said. “Smartphones may look different from the shiny rectangles we know today and take on other forms as 5G reduces the need for device-based computing power. The screen may be away from the smartphone and displayed on our AR or VR devices—or even directly projected into our eyes.”

She added that “AI will be woven into every aspect of our lives.”

The GSMA estimates that by 2021, 1.8 billion people will be using chatbots and virtual assistants.

“AI will transform industries,” said Mats Granryd, director general of mobile operator’s body GSMA. “To be truly life changing, AI requires hyper-connectivity, ultra-low speed, and low latency. When they combine—and they will—we enter the era of intelligent connectivity.”

He added that this era would be defined by highly contextualised and personalised experiences.

“The personal assistance of the future will understand our every need and understand the environment around us. We will be able to control this by voice rather than with a screen.”

Google explained that it thinks of AR and VR as points on an immersive computing spectrum. “VR is obscuring the physical world and replacing it with digital imagery,” said McCallister. “VR can take you anywhere. With AR we are overlaying CGI to understand the world around you.”

Google’s VR journey started with Cardboard in 2014, continued in 2016 with the Daydream platform for mobile smartphone VR, and advanced in January with the launch of wireless headset Mirage Solo in tandem with Lenovo. This product combines motion-tracking technology with Daydream’s virtual reality platform for 180-degree experiences.

“People spend over half their time in Daydream in video,” reported McCallister. “With YouTube we have the world’s largest library of VR content.”

Google is also investing in original VR content including with the NFL.

However, she said Google thinks AR marks the next big shift in mobile devices. “AR can bring digital information to you in the context of the real world which makes it incredibly useful,” she said.

The real reason for this stance is that there is a far wider potential user base for AR than there is for VR. Android alone has over 2 billion active devices and with ARCore, its augmented reality SDK for Android, now ready for download, Google is anticipating a deluge of developers publishing AR apps to the Google Play Store.  During 2018 Google will partner “with dozens of Android manufacturers” including Huawei and Samsung to build AR apps on their devices.

Combined with the installed iPhone base of half a billion primed for Apple’s ARKit and AR is ready for a flick of the switch.

“AR VR combined with AI will be the de-facto computing interface because the information we need to access the internet is best represented in 3D,” said Dave Ranyard, CEO for London-based app developer Dream Reality. “At some point, the killer app will come out and get all the 12- to 16-year olds playing in the AR space.”

The predicted huge reliance on software rather than hardware could allow tech titans like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon to become major competitors in the mobile industry.

There were repeated warnings that the telco industry needed to shift its culture from long-term planning to more dynamic innovation as a result.

“Planning is dead,” decreed Jim Whitehurst, CEO at open source developer Red Hat. “The traditional management system is to plan, proscribe, and execute against that plan, but in the new world that approach breaks apart. You cannot plan because things are changing too fast. Innovation is fluid, not episodic.”

He called on telcos to change their leadership processes to compete with web companies: “Solely driving efficiency means driving away innovation.”

The mobile phone is already the target device for growth of video in emerging markets.

“We think all content will go OTT, and with the power of the phone it goes mass market because people want to be in control of their entertainment,” said Mark Britt, CEO and co-founder of SVOD service iFlix. “For example, in Malaysia the pay TV market for sports is 4 million homes, yet we know there are 18 million sports fans. Pay TV has massively underserved this community. Anyone with a broadband connection can access content and the result is that you can bring football to the masses. Mobile carriers have the ability to disrupt the U$100 billion-dollar market of linear TV in Asia Pacific."

Live sport is the strategic weapon which telco BT is using to shore up its fixed line network in the UK—but also to differentiate its offer with mobile as it incorporates mobile operator EE into the fold.

Andrew Hayworth, managing director of strategy and content for BT Sport said, “Content is driving networks almost exclusively…But you’ve got to have a clear plan. Sending UHD across the network in real-time is the test case for how resilient your IP network is."

He admitted that BT had tried to win the majority of EPL rights in 2014 but had to reset its course after securing only two packages (with Sky getting the remainder).

“It was a strategy intended to grow our connectivity business and to drive and defend broadband,” he said. “Before [winning rights] BT was considered quite transactional and had no day-to-day relevance. Now, BT Sport is involved in the nation’s conversation. It has transformed the BT brand.”

Commenting on the interest by Amazon and Facebook in acquiring EPL rights he said, “The jury is still out on how the landscape might evolve. Clearly, customers value the ability to access live content on any device and so it is likely that we will see some rights holders create packages for digital from the onset.”

BT Group CEO Gavin Patterson said the telcos’ ambitions in original and exclusive content stopped with live sport. It would not be competing with Netflix.

“I don’t think anyone running a network can be in denial of Netflix. It’s a phenomenal product. Denying your customers what they want is ridiculous. We don’t intend to be a producer of general entertainment content. We are an aggregator of traditional TV and OTT. We can combine all content on one UI for a better consumer service and we use the strength of the network to add value, such as higher picture quality.”

Combining fixed and wireless assets to densify the network “means we get the sheer processing power of fixed and the convenience of wireless—which opens up whole new set of experiences for the consumer," he said.

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