Why Augmented Reality May Finally Live Up to Its Potential

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In 2009, through a bit of odd inspiration, an intern at Yelp created Yelp Monocle, the first Augmented Reality (AR) app released for the iPhone. By that time AR had been around for decades, allowing us to use computers to modify and enhance our view of the real world. But this app was different. For the first time millions of consumers had a device in their pocket capable of augmenting their world view wherever they had cell reception.

In the decade since, AR technology has been met with mixed reviews and many technological challenges slowing its adoption. But, with the advent of 5G networks, some of the these hurdles may soon be cleared and unlock further potential for augmented reality. I’d like to explore some key challenges facing the adoption of AR, how 5G technology may close this gap, and some potential applications it may unlock.

Common Limitations of Augmented Reality

AR is frequently dismissed or the subject of criticism, debating if it will ever overcome poor quality graphics or glitches in overlaying them with the real world. These issues detract from what’s intended to be an immersive experience and, similar to Yelp’s Monocle, has created a dismissiveness around AR as a novelty or Easter egg rather than core feature.

The solution to this is obvious: more advanced hardware with increased storage and computing power. This gives you faster analysis of what the cameras see, and faster enhancements of far higher quality. There are many downsides to this approach though. Creators may have to limit who can access it to only those with the latest iPhone or flagship Android phone, require dedicated hardware, or ignore the hardware capabilities and intentionally lower quality so that more people can experience it.

How 5G Fits into the Picture

We’ve all now heard of 5G, the 5th generation wireless standard being rolled out globally by Telecom companies. The promise is a faster mobile network, but just how much faster can be truly impressive. We’ve spent 10 years improving 4G LTE technology and on day one 5G is already offering 10x the average previous speed in some cities. Beyond the raw speed increase, 5G is also boasting greatly improved reliability, so no more dropped calls or “network unavailable” replies at large events.

I noted above that computing power was a major limiting factor in AR technology, and some have begun to offload this task to cloud-based computers tailor designed for modifying images. Previously the drawback was the need for a reliable high speed connection, often limiting use to the range of your Wi-Fi router. 5G breaks this barrier with phone speeds greater than most home internet connections, limiting the phone’s job to recording and display while offloading the heavy lifting to the cloud.

How 5G Will Unlock AR’s Potential

After years sidelined as a novelty, it may be difficult to imagine how augmented reality will evolve with this paradigm shift, however we’re increasingly seeing pioneers diving in to explore the potential.

While it may still land in the realm of novelty, in late 2019 The Chainsmokers band partnered with Verizon to perform the world’s first 5G concert as a part of the network launch at the Chase Center in San Francisco. The uniqueness of the experience was not limited to visual enhancements or even individual interactions a person could have. Instead, thanks to the increased cell speed and reliability, as one person adjusted the AR components, the attendees around them would see and be able to react to those changes on their own devices.

Commercial retailers in recent years have demonstrated effective use of AR, from a virtual makeover with L’Oreal to previewing what a new Ikea bedroom set would look like in your space. 5G however lets us take these instances and supercharged versions of them outdoors to engage the world. One can imagine AR glasses that allow us to experience a new version of the world as we move through it via games, historical recreations, or even real-world tips.

This may seem farfetched, but thanks to Qualcomm this may be closer to reality than we think. In May 2020, Qualcomm partnered with 15 global companies to create a standard for what they’ve dubbed “XR viewers,” an augmented reality headset for everyday life. In addition to requiring advanced motion, tilt, and velocity measurements, this standard also requires the glasses be tethered to a user’s 5G device to enable a fully immersive experience. In Panasonic’s words, “with a combination of 5G connectivity and compact, lightweight, ultra-high image quality VR glasses, we hope to deliver highly immersive experiences for live music and sports events in 2021 and beyond.”

Despite a checkered past of excitement and disappointment, this time around it does feel different. With telecom companies and global VR device manufacturers collaborating in ways that wouldn’t have been conceivable five years ago, we may finally be on the verge of a dramatic shift in capabilities and use of augmented reality. This may just be the paradigm shift in how we engage in every day life.

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