Mobile 5G holds key to future success of virtual reality

10 March 2016
By Tereza Pultarova
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Once virtual reality gets mobile, boundaries between the real and virtual worlds will blur

Once virtual reality gets mobile, boundaries between the real and virtual worlds will blur

The true era of virtual reality will only fully take off once the technology frees itself from bulky PCs and can run smoothly on mobile phones, supported by major connectivity strides enabled by the development of 5G wireless telecommunication networks.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

The 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was overflowing with virtual reality technology, with every major exhibitor showing off their latest contraptions. As various keynote speakers asserted throughout the show, what was on display in Catalonia’s capital in late February is just the beginning.

While today’s VR gamers sit glued to their PCs completely shut off from the surrounding world by an immersive Oculus Rift-style VR headset, in future they will be able to interact with other players through virtual reality games in real environments. According to Xavier Carrillo-Costa, founder of Barcelona-based mobile games developer Digital Legends Entertainment, such blurring of boundaries - or combining the best of both worlds - will be enabled by new, more portable and less isolating devices, as well as by advances in graphics that will allow the creation of virtual worlds almost indistinguishable from reality.

According to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the time is nigh when virtual reality compositions will be shared with the world in real time on social networks, replacing selfies and snapshots. VR will be "the most social platform", Zuckerberg said during a virtual reality-dominated Samsung press event. “It’s still early days but pretty soon we are going to live in the world where people have the power to broadcast live what they are doing.” However, for this virtual utopia to arrive, many technological obstacles would have to be solved, the social network supremo admitted.

Some early-stage devices were displayed at the show. Samsung introduced its Gear 360 camera, which will allow users to create virtual reality video compatible with the firm’s Gear VR headset, which runs on Samsung’s flagship Galaxy and Edge smartphones. LG introduced a similar device paired with a simple Google-Cardboard inspired headset powered by the new LG G5 smartphone. Both the Samsung and LG devices use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chip, which the maker says provides ‘the best VR experience on mobile’.

“The CPU side is well equipped,” Laurent Fournier, senior director for business development of Qualcomm Europe told E&T in Barcelona. “The GPU side needs to further improve, we can still deliver better, crisper images, more detail, more contrast, but the major challenge for truly mobile virtual reality is improving connectivity.”

Streaming full HD or even 4K virtual reality imagery places extreme demands on bandwidth, while real-time interactions emphasise the need for minimum latencies. Even though the existing 4G networks already enable limited applications, the real spring of mobile virtual reality is likely to come with the coveted 5G networks.

“Mobile virtual reality requires fibre-like speed in wireless,” Fournier said. “Even though we can easily achieve rates of 600Mbit/s and 100Mbit/s on the uplink capacity, what matters is the actual average performance of a modem and that currently is only in tens of megabits per second. I think that it is definitely time for the industry to go one order of magnitude up and to reach the hundreds of megabits per second average that would be extremely convenient to further enhance the use of virtual reality.”

At MWC, Qualcomm itself demonstrated its Snapdragon X16 LTE modem – the world’s first modem offering gigabit capability.

The mobility-oriented advances will help virtual reality grow beyond the gaming sphere into more practical applications. The development will also expect the device manufacturers to rethink their approach to designing virtual reality gadgets. It is quite unthinkable to have a virtual reality user bumping around with an isolating Oculus Rift type of headset, physically moving in the real world while reacting to the virtual one.

“There is a need for the industry to realise that it needs to be a mix of virtual and real that will be the reality of the use of those technologies in the future,” Fournier said. “The industry will have to find the means for effectively switching between virtual reality and augmented reality – being able to go from the tutorial to the real case, from the pure virtual game, to the game that is including also your reality into the picture.”

According to Xavier Carrillo-Costa, the future may see a move away from mostly graphics-oriented virtual realities to a more haptic and physical sensing feedback.

“We are now working on what we are seeing, but it will be more about what you are feeling, how you feel your environment,” Carrillo-Costa said.

Instead of the eye-covering headset, full-body suits and helmets could in the future become the trademark of virtual reality.

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