Publications

- July 1, 2021: Vol. 8, Number 7

How 5G technology is fueling augmented reality

by Jason Lund

No less an intellect than physicist Albert Einstein once observed: “Reality is merely an illusion … albeit a persistent one.”

The malleability of what we perceive as objective reality has long been a subject of fascination among spiritual sages and, more recently, technologists — the latter of whom have been working on creating augmented realities for reasons ranging from work to play. Alas, the bandwidth required to virtualize or augment human realities has been beyond our grasp.

Then came 5G, the fifth-generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks, the lynchpin innovation that augmented reality proponents have been awaiting.

5G brings with it the promise of higher speeds and performance while connecting virtually everyone and everything together. The effort to reach 5G capability has been accelerated by COVID-19, which propelled us into the virtual realm and challenged us to adapt to the so-called new normal. Augmented reality (AR), which brings information that typically sits in textbooks or manuals into real time, is made much more usable by 5G technology and is changing the way our world works.

All fields of industry from agriculture, construction, retail, medical, the military, logistics, gaming and travel, as well as individuals will benefit from 5G and AR technology and its real-time applications. Right now, there are apps that let you point your phone at a bird, flower, tree, building, river, monument, really anything and it will tell you everything you want to know about the target object. But these are limited uses of a much bigger capability.

As AR is more fully developed and carried by 5G, emergency medical technicians will be able to see situations at the same time as surgeons and doctors in other locations and receive real-time instructions through glasses or devices to save lives more effectively. Building engineers will be able to locate mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other issues more accurately from behind building walls; and experts will be able to share their “hands on” knowledge and expertise while being in another part of the country. In new construction, AR can record what’s built as opposed to what was in the plans, giving home and building owners better information to fix issues in the future. This all saves time and money and makes us more productive.

What’s going to deliver this AR experience will depend on the device delivering the information (phone, specialized glasses, goggles or something yet to be developed) and 5G connectivity (our ability to take our devices anywhere and have them work effectively).

Right now, human beings are the bridge between what we see and all the data we have. If we look at something, we identify what the something is (as best we can) and then go to a source of some kind and look up information about it. AR is trying to take us out of the way and be both the “identifier” of what you are looking at and the collector of the information from available sources. AR will be the bridge between identification and displaying all the data that’s out there.

To accomplish this, AR needs the speed and depth of a fully functioning 5G ecosystem and 5G isn’t built yet. AR is very data intensive and requires fast response. It needs strong uninterrupted signal depth to carry large amounts of data, and high speed to send and receive information quickly with no noticeable lag time (latency). We’ve all been on Zoom calls stressed by 4G technology and resulting in awkward lag times, garbled voices and frozen screens. When using AR in critical situations, like medical, military, policing and various duties carried out by robotics, these latent and frozen moments cannot occur.

So, what needs to happen? 5G stands for 5th generation, and generation is really a good word to describe it. An entire ecosystem needs to upgrade together to achieve the full 5G experience. 5G is an ecosystem of personal devices, communications equipment, private businesses, carriers, hardware, software and use of different radio frequencies licensed by the federal government all functioning together to provide connectivity to our devices. It is measured by certain agreed-upon standards of performance. These pieces of the larger ecosystem need to be updated and tested to achieve full 5G capabilities everywhere.

The difference between 5G and 4G is the performance you experience when using your devices. A measurement of performance nationally that says you’re operating in the next generation. Your phone may be 5G capable, but your experience with that phone could be 4G or 3G depending on the equipment available in the area of use. Most G’s have occurred over a 10-year span. From 2G to 3G, then 3G to 4G, etc. The goal for the providers of the 5G ecosystem is to have most of the generational upgrade accomplished in about five years so the ecosystem can gain profits over the next five years and prepare for the next “lift” of 6G.

The applications for 5G and AR are substantial and will be life changing. A great example we have all heard of is autonomous vehicles, which will be using AR as part of their “self-driving” capability. The ability for the car to quickly identify surrounding things and gather the needed information will be critical to its success. Trucks are likely to be one of the first fully autonomous vehicles as their routes are predetermined. We can all see the possibilities within the transportation business.

Among the AR challenges for autonomous driving, are recognizing surroundings throughout the journey, such as curbs, stop signs, animals, people and other moving and inanimate objects. These will all need to be identified and reacted to in real time with no delays, garbling or dropped signal. The car will have its own capabilities but will also need constant outside connection or signal (provided by a robust 5G network) to run safely, efficiently and at speed. Now throw in variables, such as adapting to weather conditions, burned-out streetlights, detours and road construction. Also, as the vehicle starts driving down the street, the equipment in one part of town is 5G quality but as it progresses, the vehicle might find itself handed off to older and less capable equipment. This would lessen the car’s ability to identify all surrounding objects or react quickly. As upgraded 5G infrastructure will go to the most populated areas first, the vehicle will pass from new equipment to old and back, adding further challenges. Other “generational” challenges for autonomous trucks would include fuel (who will fill the tank), and maintenance (who will make repairs)?

Additional AR capabilities include facial recognition, which is immensely helpful to the military and law enforcement. The technology can help identify criminals and terrorists and offer law enforcement officials locational information on a suspect. The airline industry also incorporates this technology in other countries to enhance traveler safety.

With all great advancements come additional considerations that grow with the capability itself. Cyber security is a major concern already in our technologically advanced world. Reliance on AR uses especially for critical uses such as medical, law enforcement and military would be subject to greater cyber threats. Hackers could create havoc if they were able to freeze an application in use at a critical time, seize control of a truck or freight liner, or gain access to a hospital or military facility. Cyber security is a top priority to keep us safe and we will need to grow in our ability to maintain a cyber secure environment even as we expand our use of AR through 5G.

Also, there are also social challenges to the increased use of more complex technology, such as actually learning how to use it. AR can be a terrific tool to instruct and learn. But part of creating a 5th generation community includes educating the users of the next generation of technology in using all aspects. The learning curve will be greater and most likely more frustrating for those users who are less tech savvy today.

Other potential issues such as personal privacy and preservation of personal data and location tracing are all important in the maturing environment to use AR in our expanding environment.

Overall, it is a very exciting time for technology and the possibilities of what can be accomplished for businesses, governments and individuals are vast. While there are significant challenges, the outcome will be a connectivity between the digital and physical worlds, transforming much of how we will live and work.

Albert Einstein would probably agree that “reality,” given technological interventions, might soon become a bit less persistent.

Jason Lund is managing director for property management at JLL.

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