5G is the swift kick VR and AR gaming needs to come to fruition

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One of the most notable promises of 5G is that it will revolutionize the world of gaming (and the entire entertainment industry) through its enhanced support for virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). But does VR and AR really have the potential to change gaming and entertainment as we know it — and how will 5G help? Let’s take a look.

The current state of VR

VR and AR gaming already show major promise, but both are still in their infancy. VR, where you strap on a headset to experience an alternate reality, remains pretty exclusive, at least at the high end. That’s because the price of a system like the HTC Vive or Facebook’s Oculus Rift is out of budget for most consumers, especially considering they’ll also need a relatively-powerful gaming PC. But more and more consumers are gaining access to these experiences through VR arcades that are popping up all over urban centers.

HTC Vive Pro Eye review

Additionally, if you’re willing to take a step down in graphics and interactivity, it’s far easier to try out VR using inexpensive headsets like the $200 Oculus Go or the $400 Lenovo Mirage Solo, as well as mobile accessories like Google Daydream View or Samsung Gear VR, which require a compatible smartphone. These experiences can be quite captivating — take, for instance, the awesome feeling of staring up at a 15-foot dinosaur in a Jurassic World VR short.

Gradually, with standalone wireless devices like the forthcoming Oculus Quest ($400) and HTC Vive Cosmos (price unannounced, pictured above), these two categories of VR will come together, making the technology a much easier sell for the average consumer. For now, though, the market is still pretty divided between low-end and high-end VR, both of which have significant drawbacks.

AR, in a nutshell

As for AR, where you use a device to overlay digital images on the real world, the most notable example so far has been the massively successful Pokémon Go game for Android and iOS. The mobile game prompts users to get out of the house and catch Pokémon in the real world. The AR part of the game, however, often goes unused with many players citing a lack of accuracy and battery drain.

microsoft hololens app compettion surgery 5
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There are also AR headsets like Microsoft’s Hololens (shown above), though most consumers won’t have had a chance to try something like it quite yet. At least initially, a lot of the industry focus for AR headsets is on business applications (like architecture mockups and medical training) rather than games. The consumer-focused apps and games that do exist are much like the ones that exist for VR, which is to say — limited in content with short play-through times that simply don’t justify the investment in equipment.

What role does 5G play?

In either case, for both VR and AR it’s clear there’s still much work to be done to make the medium successful, but that isn’t halting development. The opportunity is far too great. Humans have fantasized about the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality for a long time — one of the most early examples is from a science fiction story called “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, dating back all the way to 1935.

samsung nasa moon landing in suit
Samsung moon landing VR experience. Joel Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Thankfully for our collective dreams of escaping into the virtual world, 5G’s bandwidth and low latency are expected to contribute greatly in making VR and AR mainstream. The higher throughputs of 5G will be necessary for VR and AR content that’s streamed from the cloud, providing users with the same flexibility they’ve come to expect from video streaming platforms like Netflix.

While there isn’t currently a Netflix of the gaming world, game streaming services like PlayStation Now, GeForce Now, and Jump already exist and are well-positioned to blossom in the 5G era of consistent and fast wireless internet. One of the key benefits of these platforms is that players can stream games for much lower prices than they would pay if they bought the games outright, which would be massively helpful when it comes to reducing the overall cost of AR and VR for consumers. Google’s Project Stream lets you play games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey in the Chrome browser, and 5G would only help make it run far more smoothly. The fact that 5G opens up opportunity for game streaming means it also broadens opportunities for AR and VR.

The importance of higher speeds alone should not be understated, though. Mobile video was already well on its way to becoming a major force when 4G LTE came into play, but it was the new generation of wireless technology that improved the quality enough to make it commonplace, leading to groundbreaking apps like Snapchat, and bolstering growth for platforms like YouTube and the abovementioned Netflix. In much the same way, 5G could do the same for VR and AR.

In the future, it’s easy to envision VR and AR (or a mix of the two — a hybrid known as mixed reality) seeping into every aspect of our digital lives. In fact, there have been some pretty fascinating video projections, like the one above from Keiichi Matsuda, which shows an overwhelming AR future crammed with advertisements and animations layered over top the real world.

Predictions for the future

It’ll no doubt be a while before that becomes a reality, but market predictions are optimistic about the future of AR and VR. Though sources vary significantly, Statista expects AR and VR market size to reach 209.2 billion U.S. dollars by 2022, while Research and Markets more conservatively estimates the market will generate revenues of $55 billion by 2021.

Whichever forecast proves true, it’s clear many are betting on VR and AR as one of the key applications of the 5G era. In fact, it may end up being the killer 5G application, as video was for LTE. With the multi-gigabit speeds and millisecond latency that 5G promises in the coming years, we can expect to jump in and out of new worlds on a whim — thus bringing our science fiction dreams full-circle. Stanley G. Weinbaum, and all the other visionaries who predicted this era, would be proud.

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