5G networks of the future could well meet the demands of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) technology. And wireless carriers are working to make that happen.
Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others have been eyeing AR/VR as the next big tech platform, and all have made investments in this area. But so far, AR/VR has suffered from disappointing user experiences and bulky hardware. The situation is so bad some have exited the VR space altogether.
Wireless operators are hopeful that 5G and edge computing can solve at least some of these issues. 5G networks promise to deliver ultra-fast speeds and low latency connections, thus helping to remove the bulky wires on today's VR goggles. Further, edge computing may play an even more important in the future of AR/VR by helping to reduce latency, thereby allowing processing to be offloaded to a nearby edge computing site. This would eliminate the need for VR goggles to have expensive and heavy high-powered processing capabilities.
This all could all set the stage for VR glasses that are light and responsive -- and desirable.
Moving compute to the edge
To get that type of VR-quality latency, operators will need to move the compute power closer to the network edge. According to Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business, AT&T has seen latency rates below 10 milliseconds (ms) in its fixed 5G trials. (Experts say AR/VR applications must have a latency rate of 20 ms to work but that a latency of 7 ms or less is even better.) But he adds that edge computing will help reduce latency even further. "Putting compute power closer to where it's needed while simultaneously increasing network speeds with mobile 5G has the capacity materially to reduce latency and be transformational for business," he said.
Verizon is also looking at ways to use its edge network to improve AR/VR capabilities. TJ Vitolo, the head of Verizon's 5G Lab, explained that all AR/VR applications are dependent upon the GPU, which typically resides in the device. But the GPU can't support many users. "You have to allocate one GPU for two users throughout your network," Vitolo said. "If we have thousands of edge nodes to support thousands of users that would result in a lot of GPUs."
To solve this dilemma, Verizon created an independent GPU-based orchestration system that will enable scalable cloud-based services. This GPU-based system uses slicing and virtualization techniques to increase the number of users and tenants.
In addition, by putting the GPU system in the network it makes it possible for hardware makers to develop smaller and thinner devices, because those devices won't have to handle computing functions. "We think in the future mobile devices will go away," Vitolo said. "Glasses will be the next big interface and the requirements are a small form factor and lower power."
Vitolo declined to discuss what Verizon plans to do with its GPU-based orchestration system but said that the company will be making future announcements about it.
Besides its work in the 5G Lab, Verizon also purchased some software assets from Jaunt, a virtual reality startup. Vitolo declined to reveal the details of this acquisition but said that Verizon plans to use Jaunt's IP for some of its AR/VR work.
AT&T's leap into AR/VR
Verizon isn't alone in its AR/VR research and development. In 2018 AT&T made a strategic investment in augmented reality startup Magic Leap. The operator now sells Magic Leap's AR device in its stores.
But the investment also gives AT&T exclusive rights to work with Magic Leap on other things including network access, content distribution and devices. According to Katibeh, the operator is working with Magic Leap on 5G use cases for both businesses and consumers. He added that AT&T hosted a 5G hackathon recently with Magic Leap that focused on developing new enterprise applications.
Although it's still early in the AR/VR ecosystem, Katibeh named some interesting proof of concepts being tested in healthcare and manufacturing. In particular, Katibeh pointed to Vitas, a hospice care company that is looking at how to use VR and AR to make patients more comfortable during end-of-life situations. For example, a patient could use VR and AR to make a virtual journey somewhere that would distract them from their pain.
Verizon is also working with developers on state-of-the-art VR and AR applications. Vitolo talked about applications that couple powerful edge computing with AR and VR that can create 3D computer vision, real-time transcoding and more.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.