MWC 19: AR, VR, and 5G Create the Future of Online Entertainment

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While much of the discussion around 5G is a heavyweight slog through business-to-business applications, there’s a lot fun to be had imagining what the combined developments in high-speed networks and machine vision can do for future media, information, and entertainment. We are at the low foothills of Ready Player One scenarios in which the online world merges with the real.

Few companies are as ambitious with this vision of virtual and physical interaction as Magic Leap.

Speaking at MWC2019, Omar Khan, chief product officer, said he prefers to use the term “physical” rather than “real” world to describe what his company is up to.

“We see the harmonization of the digital and physical worlds at scale,” he said. “Humans interact using gesture, eye gaze, and voice with no friction. Our aim is to replicate that natural human interface with spatial computing.”

The Magic Leap One goggles are, in his words, “a spatial computing device” which among other things will “unbox the web”.

That’s shorthand for taking current two-dimensional web pages and turning them into 3D virtual objects or environments.

“There’s no reason not to turn the streets of your city into Gotham,” he said.

Spatial computing using AR googles, he said, would enable 3D communication and co-presence, turning any living space into a venue for entertainment

“When you bring people to places there’s a finite economy in terms of cost, travel, time. But when you bring places to people then it is infinite.”

The makers of AR game phenomenon Pokémon Go said they had purposely set out to get kids off the sofa and to play in the real world—albeit through the lens of a mobile screen.

“What excites us is the socially interactive nature to AR experiences,” said Phil Keslin, CTO at Niantic. “We have held AR events which attract thousands of people to participate with other people they have never met. I firmly believe creating those shared social experiences is key to making immersive gaming apps work.”

He claimed that Pokémon Go players have collectively walked over 22 billion kilometres while playing the game—the distance the earth travels around the sun over the course of 21 years.

Niantic hopes for more of the same mass participation when it launches its Harry Potter-themed AR title later this year.

Clues about the tech that has gone into Harry Potter: Wizards Unite can be deduced from Neon, a real-time multiplayer virtual dodgeball game Niantic introduced in prototype last year.

Niantic is also using machine learning to determine the depth of every pixel in a video frame, then using that to make virtual objects run behind real objects in real-time. The processing for this, Keslin said, is done almost entirely on the device.

“To enable large shared experiences you need better bandwidth and very low latency which is what 5G brings,” he said. “Mobile edge computing moves processing closer to the user and allows us to do compute intensive work such as arbitrating the real-time interactions of a thousand individuals.”

Immersive storytelling is the bread and butter of RYOT Lab, Verizon’s innovation hub for emerging technologies.

“5G is the post-smartphone era and you need to get ready for it now,” urged Mark Melling, head of RYOT Studio in Europe. “You can’t connect 5G globally today but you can connect up a small room.”

RYOT has built a 5G-networked studio where, among other things, it has trialled instant motion capture—the immediate translation of performance captured live into animation.

“That’s never been done before,” he claimed. “Imagine the future production of Avatarwhere it won’t take a month or a week to render every single frame. You can do it instantly.”

RYOT is also experimenting with holography. Subjects are captured in 3D volumetric video and viewable by a third-party wearing a HoloLens. Melling’s example was bringing together a U.S. customs agent with an immigrant for the better understanding of both.

“That’s one of the most controversial conversations you can have can have, but holographic presence challenges people to share the same space with another that they would never dare to do otherwise.”

The Tokyo Olympics in summer 2020 will be a showcase for 5G technologies, including their use in multi-camera video contribution links and 8K virtual reality—planned as live streams by telco NTT Docomo.

IOC President Thomas Bach told MWC2019, “Your adrenaline will be pumping as if you are leaping off the half pipe or feeling the G-force on the skeleton sled. In this respect VR and AR offer a completely new way to experience the magic of the Olympic Games.”

He hinted that the IOC is exploring ways that esports could be experienced using AR and VR. In tandem with Alibaba, Omega, and Intel, the organization is also enveloping Tokyo’s games venues with 5G to the cloud. “This will transform the Olympics for fans, venues, and athletes,” Bach said. “The technology will also help judge and referee events to arrive at better decision making. We may see digital judging of gymnastics in Tokyo.”

For HTC founder and CEO Cher Wang, VR and AR “is the most immersive form of media and communication ever invented.”

She declared, “They will increasingly be blended for different applications. Recent advances in eye tracking will enhance the quality of content by optimizing VR performance; sensors will feed back contextual information about the user environment.”

Wang predicted 5G will deliver 10Gbs for data heavy applications like VR. “The world around us will be mapped out for contextual information,” she said. “AI will humanize our technology using facial recognition, gesture, biometrics, and voice control to interface with the virtual world. Blockchain will ensure our personal data world remains private unless we choose to share.”

She used the occasion to launch the HTC 5G Hub—an entertainment device running Android 9.0 Pie which also acts as a smart display and 5G hotspot for up to 20 users. It houses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and enables low-latency gaming and 4K video streaming (though the Hub’s own screen is strangely 720x1280). Compatible with the Sprint network, the device will likely run on other networks in the future. It is expected to integrate with Google Assistant.

Photo: HTC founder and CEO Cher Wang introduced the HTC 5G Hub at MWC2019.

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