Gee whizz: can 5G unlock VR’s true potential?

Gee whizz: can 5G unlock VR's true potential?

For a technology that promises to revolutionize business and communications, 5G is pretty prosaic. Despite the snappy name, the fifth generation of cellular phone technology is really a landgrab for an untapped region of the electromagnetic spectrum. So, no bells or whistles – unless they’re being downloaded at high speed. 

However, the promise of 5G – which is arriving in more and more cities every day as mobile service operators install thousands of low-density phone masts atop streetlamps and skyscrapers – is virtually unlimited. Box sets downloaded in the time it takes you to traverse the concourse at King’s Cross, online gaming freed from the shackles of the basement den, and seamless video calls between boardrooms and across borders: it means more data, on more devices, with more speed. Furthermore, it could enable the mass adoption of an entirely new form of reality – a virtual one.

Karl Woolley is the head of Framestore’s VR studio. In the years since the unit was established, he and his team have taken filmgoers into the world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, sunseekers island-hopping on behalf of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and Game of Thrones fans to the summit of the Wall – for which it earned an Emmy nomination. Woolley says 5G could bring immersive media to a wider audience than ever before, for less money.

“For us, it’s potentially the holy grail. It will hopefully mean we have more visceral and mobile VR and AR experiences,” he says.

The main benefit of 5G, according to Woolley, is that it will provide capacity for headset devices to stream content, rather than directly rendering it. Currently, ‘wired’ headsets rely upon a connection to a computer or console with the computational power to render immersive, encompassing experiences at a frame rate high enough that viewers don’t feel nauseous. Streaming could allow wireless headsets to offer the same in-depth experience as tethered devices, and Woolley suggests that this could ultimately enable the development of lightweight equipment that doesn’t compromise on quality metrics such as latency. “If you don’t need to have all that computational power in a computer or headset, you can slim down the technology to something comparable to a pair of Ray-Bans.

“It might be that 5G is the stepping stone that helps us go from 10m or 20m headsets to a billion headsets,” he says.

The National Geographic Society synced up 450 VR headsets at the Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington DC
The National Geographic Society synced up 450 VR headsets at the Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington DC

National Geographic has a long-held reputation as a champion of photography in publishing, and it has been extending that pioneering spirit into virtual and augmented realms. Jenna Pirog, who is the company’s senior director of video and immersive experiences, tells The Drum that the medium offers “so much potential, especially for a company whose mission is to serve as a portal for our audience to explore the farthest reaches of the Earth”.

Recent examples of National Geographic’s immersive work include a four-part documentary about the Okavango Delta and a new VR experience for the Oculus Quest – National Geographic Explore VR – in which would-be explorers kayak through sea ice and camp out amid the sheer winds of an Antarctic storm en route to a colony of emperor penguins.

Pirog, who started her career as a coordinator on the photography division of National Geographic Magazine, notes that experimenting with VR fits into its experimental traditions. “We’ve always pushed the boundaries of visual storytelling, from the first time we published a real photograph in 1890 to our first underwater color photograph in 1927, to experiments with camera traps, drones and rovers.

“We approach our experiments with immersive technology with the same commitment to quality as photo, text and video.”

Pirog says 5G could broaden the appeal of immersive content: “I think 5G will make immersive experiences more accessible to the general public, especially for AR, and the quality of the experiences will increase when there aren’t as many latency issues. Of course, hardware and content will also need to continue to develop at the same rate for any of that to matter, but I am optimistic.”

In the UK, the rollout of 5G stalled over legal wrangles between telcos and local councils, leading some experts to fear that the UK government’s pledge to connect 15m businesses to 5G by 2025 will go unfulfilled. In the US, 5G was for a long time only available on select devices in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Nexus Studio’s HotStepper
Nexus Studio’s HotStepper, the world’s first augmented reality character-based wayfinding app

Colin Davis, interactive arts executive producer at Nexus Studios, tells The Drum that 5G “has the potential to make a massive impact”, but that access will be patchy. “In the UK and Europe they’re hitting major metropolitan areas first, but in the United States, where you have so much physical geography to cover, I think it will be several years before people in those areas are able to take advantage of 5G.”

In the meantime, Woolley, Pirog and Davis are betting on immersive ‘destination experiences’ to push VR and AR into the mainstream. These include state-of-the-art rides that Woolley’s Framestore team has designed for a theme park in China and touring theater productions such as Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, which was created by immersive production company Dotdotdot.

While Framestore has been producing immersive work for almost a decade, Woolley says the team has expanded rapidly – from a team of four in 2014 to a 45-strong global unit. Davis says his team has experienced a similarly rapid growth, and that the studio’s vaunted animators have been crossing over to work on its immersive projects. “We’ve been shifting a lot of our work over to real-time engines to take advantage of the animators and directors here in these new formats,” he says.

Nexus has been working with AEG, the live entertainment firm that operates venues such as the Hammersmith Apollo and Los Angeles’ historic El Rey Theatre, to create ‘digital twins’ of its physical venues and incorporate immersive elements into productions. Davis says: “You can create incredibly immersive illusions, and in an AR or VR setting it adds another level of realism.”

Pirog points to National Geographic’s own use of VR at live events: “Last year, the National Geographic Society outfitted the Grosvenor Auditorium here at HQ in Washington DC with a special system to sync up 450 VR headsets. It’s amazing to watch that many people have an immersive experience together.” 

She says events can introduce new audiences to immersive media without them needing expensive kit. “If you make the technology accessible, people will be interested. If you expect them to purchase a headset for the home, you are talking to a more niche, gaming-focused audience.”

Woolley says that, even if 5G connectivity spurs the development of immersive devices, content producers still have a long way to travel. “It’s such a new medium. Think how many years it took to develop a language of film – things like camera angles or tropes. We haven’t got our heads around that yet in VR.”

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