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Operators hope for a VR catalyst to 5G

Instead of Zoom and Netflix, could the next pandemic spark a massive shift to 5G and VR? That certainly appears to be the unspoken thinking behind a new push toward augmented and virtual reality products among wireless network operators.

Highlighted by Qualcomm – the silicon vendor powering most of today's 5G devices – a large group of wireless carriers and device vendors are pledging to begin selling a new batch of VR and AR gadgets destined for the consumer and enterprise markets. Qualcomm is pushing a specific label for the trend: XR, which the company said comprises everything from full-blown virtual reality to unobtrusive, text-in-your-vision augmented reality.

"XR is one of the first killer applications enabled by 5G and is also one of the key businesses for China Mobile in the 5G era," said Wang Hengjiang, deputy general manager of China Mobile Group Device Co., in a release from Qualcomm. China Mobile is the world's largest wireless network operator.

"Innovative XR technologies paired with Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband network will redefine how our customers engage in the future, and as the XR ecosystem continues to grow, Verizon will be there to offer the most powerful XR experiences available," said Brian Higgins, Verizon's SVP of consumer device marketing and product, in that same release. Verizon is the biggest wireless operator in the US.

In conjunction with the Augmented World Expo (AWE) this week (a virtual event, of course), Qualcomm highlighted a range of head-worn devices powered by its silicon that can be connected to a 5G smartphone.

Qualcomm said a range of new gadgets will run its Snapdragon processor and will make use of its XR certification program. Click here for a larger version of this image. (Source: Qualcomm)
Qualcomm said a range of new gadgets will run its Snapdragon processor and will make use of its XR certification program. Click here for a larger version of this image.
(Source: Qualcomm)

"XR viewers unlock a new generation of immersive experiences using 5G-enabled smartphones that provide high bandwidth and low latency which is essential for high-quality XR," Qualcomm said in its release, specifically pointing to how "workplace meetings can be revolutionized through holographic telepresence with virtual collaboration platforms."

That certainly feels like a much more tangible use case in a post-COVID-19 world. "If enabling delegates to be at a virtual location mentally while physically at their computer is a goal, then virtual reality may have a role," Ian Hughes, a senior analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence's 451 Research unit, told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

To be clear, the VR, AR and XR space remains decidedly niche. According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence's Kagan unit, VR pulled in just $600 million in global consumer software revenue in 2019. And though that figure is expected to grow, top VR gadgets like Facebook's Oculus and the HTC Vive still take a backseat to mass market devices like Microsoft's Xbox Series X, the company's next big video game console that doesn't sport any V, A or X realities.

Nonetheless, some are certainly hoping that will eventually change. As reported by Engadget, former HTC CEO Peter Chou is working with a startup called XRSpace that's developing a Qualcomm-powered VR headset called Mova that will include a 5G option.

The company's pitch – the ability to create virtual places where you can meet up with your friends – seems ideally suited for consumers wary of venturing from their pandemic lockdowns.

As the publication reports, operators are now beginning to push the Mova – Chunghwa Telecom and Deutsche Telekom are among those with plans to sell the device.

Thus, it's clear that operators are hoping that momentum builds behind AR, VR and XR, thereby potentially creating a new class of popular devices they can sell 5G connections to. "We are working on an exciting integrated XR service – stay tuned," promised Sean Seaton, Deutsche Telekom's SVP for group partnering and devices, in Qualcomm's release.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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