UPDATED 15:57 EDT / FEBRUARY 26 2023

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How 5G will help blaze the trail to the long-awaited metaverse

The metaverse has become a major buzzword as people begin to flock to these immersive digital worlds in virtual and augmented reality, promising to transform how people work, socialize and entertain themselves.

But there’s a key obstacle in the way of that vision: Metaverse applications tend to be resource-intensive because they need to send, receive and compute massive amounts of visual data about the world. In order to create those immersive experiences, they need much higher bandwidth and more reliable telecommunications networks.

In short, they need 5G. That’s the fifth-generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks that has only recently started rolling out in force at the big four U.S. wireless carriers, AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., T-Mobile US Inc. and Dish Network Corp. 5G promises to provide 10 times the bandwidth of 4G networks, with speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second as well as lower latency and more reliability — all critical to avoiding glitches that can destroy the sense of living in an alternate world.

Although 5G hasn’t yet delivered on its promised bandwidth and hasn’t fully rolled out everywhere, wireless telecom companies are still investing billions of dollars to make it universally available. During 2020 and 2021, the big four collectively spent nearly $100 billion in back-to-back auctions for the so-called mid-spectrum radio band considered essential for 5G communications.

5G, as well as its role in the development of the metaverse, will be prime areas of activity, discussion, product introductions and deal-making at MWC 2023, the former Mobile World Congress event taking place this coming week in Barcelona, Spain. Vodafone Group plc will even let visitors to its stand at MWC enter its metaverse using a Meta Quest Pro VR headset to fly a real-world 5G-connected drone located in Seville 830 kilometers away.

Metaverse maelstrom

Although the metaverse hasn’t taken off as much as some have hoped, the sheer multitude of companies big and small working to hone the experience with hardware and software suggests it’s not going to fade away. The biggest promoter is Meta Platforms Inc., which changed its name from Facebook near the end of 2021 to catch the wave of hype about the metaverse. It’s behind some of the most popular mixed reality headsets on the market.

But Meta is hardly alone in its ambitions. Microsoft Corp. has the HoloLens AR goggles, and Apple Inc. plans to roll out a mixed reality headset as early as June, with a more mass-market version potentially coming in 2025.

The big benefit of AR and VR is that they can recreate entire worlds and environments right in a living room, office or street corner with little effort. All people have to do is pull out a smartphone or put on smartglasses and the device does all the work for them.

Using a metaverse app, an all-remote team can collaborate together even if members are thousands of miles apart. Or people can have an interactive map guide them with visual waypoints laid out in their field of vision using AR as they walk down the street.

Reports estimate the metaverse market size at about $61.8 billion during 2022, with a forecast $426 billion value in 2027 driven by a rise in demand for AR and VR hardware, metaverse software and gaming. The same report from MarketsandMarkets Research Private Ltd. mentions a key motivating factor for these opportunities: continued development of 5G technology.

The connectivity conundrum

And it’s not just the quality of the in-metaverse experiences that requires widespread 5G. It will also be critical for the next generation of VR and AR hardware – especially making headsets smaller and more comfortable to wear.

“If the metaverse will be driven in large part by immersive experiences, this requires extremely high processing power,” Rolf Illenberger, managing director of VRDirect, an enterprise VR solutions company, told SiliconANGLE. “You will only be able to get the devices to a form factor of so small, maybe as small as sunglasses, and not heat up too much to be comfortable. To make them smaller, the processing power must be outside the device.”

Current headsets are quite bulky because they have large batteries and processors onboard in order to do all the processing. That makes them heavy and hot, which makes them uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Others must be “tethered,” either by a cable or by WiFi, to a more powerful machine, such as a personal computer in the same room to do their processing for them. Both of these factors limit mobility when using a headset.

“The next evolution of the metaverse will be that the processing power will be in the cloud – and it cannot be in the cloud 200 kilometers away,” Illenberger said.

In fact, that computing power needs to be quite close, potentially at the street level or next door, or at least a single hop away so that the time to get that computing power is as short as possible. That’s where the lower latency of 5G comes in.

There’s also a need for more edge computing, or moving cloud computation as close to the user as possible. By adding additional edge data centers or servers alongside extending 5G networks to get more computation within residential and business districts, it would allow for thinner devices that can do less computation onboard and simply serve as input-output devices. It would also lower the latency between servers and users and allow metaverse applications to commit more of the bandwidth to render visuals instead of for pure computation.

“There has long been a tradeoff between mobility and capability when it comes to data delivery and compute, which is part of the challenge of realizing the value of the metaverse,” said T.J. Vitolo, director and head of extended reality technology development at Verizon Communications Inc. “But 5G and technologies like mobile edge compute should support fast, data-intensive experiences on the go, ultimately leading to powerful experiences for metaverse users.”

This will have a particularly profound effect on augmented reality applications, which overlay visuals over a user’s real-world vision. The use cases for AR have people putting on AR glasses where they actually go out into the world and look at objects. Overlays become part of their immersive experience for entertainment such as games or advertising.

There are numerous enterprise use cases as well, such as warehouse workers being able to visualize warehouse inventory management processes, locate where products could be placed, and carry out other logistics jobs. Augmented reality can be used on the factory floor to display statistics directly on running machines to reveal health and other information, and on construction sites to give “X-ray vision” into walls, revealing plumbing and electrical lines.

For companies such as Niantic Inc., known for popularizing mobile AR through the games “Ingress” and “Pokemon GO,” the combination of 5G and edge compute will help drive even more players. It will also open up further adoption for AR headsets, which are the gateway to the metaverse. Niantic is helping build out its real-world metaverse with its AR developer tools.

“This is very important for us because our real-world metaverse takes place out in space on your mobile devices and on AR headsets, and will all be done over your data plan,” said Sarah Gilarsky, global head of telco partnership at Niantic. “The better your internet connection can be, the lower the latency, the better the processing, the more immersive and the better your metaverse experience will be out in the real world. That’s because everything we do is based on AR, and to do that, we need the lowest latency to make it feel as natural and organic as possible.”

With lighter headsets, higher bandwidth, lower latency and more reliable connections, people will be able to be more mobile with augmented and mixed reality than ever before, taking it to more places and doing more things. But it all depends on 5G networks as the foundation for bringing the metaverse into more places from city streets to factory floors.

The 5G kicker

Will all that be enough to recharge what seems like a stalled march to the metaverse? It’s quite possible. A recent research study by Ericsson, a provider of communication infrastructure technology to service providers, revealed that there’s a much higher engagement with metaverse technology for consumers using 5G than with 4G.

Moreover, in the study of more than 49,000 consumers across 37 countries, the largest research into 5G adoption to date, the company found growing satisfaction with AR services enabled by 5G and an increase in their use.

“It is interesting to note that 5G is emerging as an important enabler for early adopters to embrace metaverse-related services, such as socializing, playing and buying digital items in interactive 3D virtual gaming platforms,” said Jasmeet Singh Sethi, head of Ericsson ConsumerLab. “The amount of time spent on augmented reality apps by 5G users has also doubled over the past two years.”

On average, 5G users already spend one more hour a week in metaverse-related services than those using 4G users. These users also have high expectations for 5G performance and network coverage and increased time on AR apps. They expect to spend at least two hours or more watching video content weekly on mobile devices, and the report estimates 1.5 hours of which will be consumed on AR and VR glasses by 2025.

As for business and enterprise, Illenberger believes 5G and metaverse adoption will probably move faster than the consumer sector. “Especially what we’ll see when it comes to 5G adoption, business applications will be adopted way ahead of consumer applications,” he said. “It is much easier to cover a factory with a full-fledged 5G network than any given city.”

In the enterprise, industrial metaverse applications are used extensively in the automotive and aerospace industries, especially in manufacturing, where virtual reality is used to simulate the real world using digital twins. Automotive manufacturers such as BMW and Volkswagen have used VR to train thousands of employees. Car maker Kia Corp. uses the metaverse to help engineers collaborate remotely on vehicle engineering processes.

Using the power of augmented reality and digital twins, factory workers can quickly gauge the health and status of machines across an entire floor and get assistance with repairs from distant experts. By using cameras on their headsets, technicians can receive expert assistance to help diagnose troublesome problems with machinery on the floor. Using AR headsets and 5G the connected expert can even place helpful visuals over the vision of the tech to guide them during repairs.

Still, 5G isn’t the only roadblock to the metaverse, especially in the enterprise. The hardware has to match 5G’s capabilities as well. Headsets are being designed by major providers such as Microsoft with its enterprise-focused HoloLens 2, Meta with its high-end mixed reality Meta Quest Pro, and Pico’s PICO 4E all-in-one enterprise-class extended reality headsets. Problem is, they don’t yet have 5G chips in them.

But that could also change soon. Chipmaker Qualcomm Technologies Inc. recently released its next-generation Snapdragon AR2 Gen 1 platform for AR glasses that will allow headset makers to tether future devices to 5G-enabled smartphones. That will provide a stepping stone for headset makers to deliver next-generation devices that connect to 5G networks by offloading networking to smartphones while slimming down their size to make them more comfortable. Other headsets will likely include their own 5G modems and connect directly to networks.

Once 5G and 5G-capable headsets come together in the next couple of years, the metaverse will finally have its chance prove whether it can fulfill its longstanding promise to change how we work and play.

Image: Pixabay

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