Industry Insights

How 5G Augments Augmented Reality

2020-05-30  |  5 min read 

The list of applications that are enabled or improved by 5G is long and includes many things that may not immediately spring to mind. One such application that is often overlooked — at least when it comes to 5G — is augmented reality.  

Augmented reality has been around in various forms for years, of course. But thus far, augmented reality has yet to go mainstream. There are many reasons that augmented reality has yet to go prime time, including the cost of the equipment and a general lack of practical applications for the technology.

As a recent article in USA Today points out, it has helped augmented reality's uptake that the head-mounted displays utilized by augmented reality to date are big, bulky, uncomfortable, and expensive. Packing into these head-mounted displays all the computing power needed to make augmented reality (pardon the pun) a reality is no easy task.

Fortunately, most of us are walking around with a supercomputer in our pockets in the form of a smartphone. Given that, the solution seems obvious: lightweight, head-worn augmented reality devices that might be no bigger or bulkier than a pair of sunglasses tethered to a smartphone via a wired or wireless connection.

The reason that this hasn't happened sooner is that to make it work well, you really need 5G. Specifically, you need 5G's high bandwidth and ultra-reliable low-latency (URLLC) capability for the realistic images and immersive experiences to make augmented reality worthwhile. With URLLC's guarantee of highly secure communications with a latency of no more than 1 millisecond and connection reliability of at least 99.999%, the combination of a 5G capable smartphone tethered to a lightweight augmented reality display could have hundreds of applications in the consumer, industrial, medical, and education worlds.

As USA Today also points out, tech companies have already been hard at work on this concept, even as 5G network deployment is still in its early stages. Earlier this week, Qualcomm announced that 15 mobile network operators around the world have announced plans to commercialize what it calls XR viewers within the next year. (XR is an umbrella term for augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies).

Qualcomm defines XR viewers as lightweight glasses that connect to a smartphone with a Snapdragon 855 or 865 5G chipset via a USB-C cable. Qualcomm has a program called the Qualcomm XR Optimized Certification Program, under which Qualcomm tests the performance of XR viewers and validates their compatibility with Snapdragon-powered 5G smartphones. There are already eight different OEMs offering XR viewers through the program.

Beijing-based Nreal, one of Qualcomm's XR viewer partners, markets the Nreal Light mixed reality glasses for $499. 

Qualcomm and its XR viewer partners are certainly not alone in their quest to commercialize augmented and virtual reality products that rely on 5G. As the USA Today article also points out, Microsoft recently announced that its enterprise-focused HoloLens 2 mixed-reality headset is also getting 5G support through a dongle.  

Qualcomm and Microsoft are big names in the tech world, but no doubt there are many smaller companies working on augmented reality products that seek to capitalize on the 5G's URLLC capabilities. Qualcomm XR viewer OEM partners include well-known electronics companies Panasonic and Oppo, but are mostly smaller less visible firms. Look for these firms and others to make waves in augmented reality as availability and uptake of 5G continue to grow.

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