How will 5G boost VR and AR
Published on: December 26, 2019

By Jon Mundy


Tomorrow’s augmented and virtual reality applications will lean heavily on a fully functioning 5G network.

It's no exaggeration to say that the future of augmented and virtual reality is dependent on a reliable 5G network.

We know that 5G will bring with it a massive increase in mobile network speed, capacity, and reliability. There will be many use cases for this, but VR and AR in particular are set to evolve to the next level.

What is VR and AR?

Virtual Reality, or VR, is the practice of embedding a user in a fully immersive three dimensional computer-simulated world, typically through the use of a specially constructed headset.

Augmented Reality, or AR, is built on similar technology to VR. Instead of creating a completely self-contained digital reality, however, it splices virtual elements into a real world view. By way of an example, consider the heads-up display (HUD) of a modern fighter jet. At the other end of the AR scale, think of the tiny monsters battling on your local park bench in Pokemon GO.

The early '90s saw the first major wave of virtual reality hype with the first widespread commercial releases of consumer headsets. This could be seen with a number of large, expensive VR arcade machines, though the experience proved too cumbersome and costly to break into the mainstream.

In recent years, both both VR and AR have experienced something of a resurgence thanks to advances in mobile and computer technology. The Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR have all provided convincing and affordable VR experiences, while both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android smartphone operating systems have spawned a range of AR and VR applications.

As a result, ABI Research estimates the total AR market will reach $114 billion by 2021, while the total VR market will reach $65 billion within the same timeframe.

What does 5G have to do with VR and AR?

Many experts within the industry believe that the arrival of the next generation of mobile network, widely referred to as 5G, will unlock the full potential of VR and AR technology.

As an October 2018 Qualcomm report outlined, both VR and AR require a cheaper, more capacious network with lower latency and more consistency if they’re to continue developing. In other words, they both need 5G.

The complex worlds and sophisticated input mechanisms of VR and AR experiences require a lot of data to be processed. This is fine for local applications, but if you want to feed in data remotely it can place a strain on a network. That’s particularly so if the user is on the move or away from a fixed internet connection.

Immersion is key to AR and particularly VR experiences, so a laggy or unreliable connection can prove ruinous. Indeed, in the worst case scenario, a jerky VR experience can make the user feel physically sick.

This is where 5G’s significantly faster speeds and lower latency will come to the fore. ABI Research anticipates that 5G will bring about “a 10X improvement in throughout, a 10X decrease in latency, a 100X improvement in traffic capacity, and a 100X improvement in network efficiency” over 4G.

5G is expected to enable VR devices to offload the intensive computational work they require to the cloud. Besides increasing the fidelity of VR experiences, this will enable those same devices to become much smaller and more wieldy.

The aforementioned quote comes from a 2017 Qualcomm-commissioned ABI Research white paper entitled ‘Augmented and Virtual Reality: The First Wave of 5G ‘Killer’ Apps’. This paper highlights the potential synergy between 5G and VR/AR technology.