Known as the “Godmother of VR” due to her pioneering work in using virtual reality in journalism, Nonny de la Peña told an SXSW keynote audience today that upcoming 5G wireless networks will help to mainstream VR, untethering users and bringing VR experiences to mobile devices. According to de la Peña, between 5G service, “cheaper, more powerful headsets,” and increasing “demand for “fully immersive, ‘walk around’ content,” journalists will soon be placing viewers inside compelling 3D news events.
While the connection between VR and 5G might not be instantly obvious, Qualcomm and other 5G developers have forecast that VR will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the next-generation wireless technology. Earlier this year, Verizon used low-latency 5G to demonstrate how VR could let people experience football and basketball through the players’ eyes in real time, and other carriers have touted VR as a way to let viewers experience concerts and tourist destinations through headsets.
Up until this point, de la Peña’s novel presentation of newsworthy events in VR has reached small but enthralled audiences, limited by dependence on powerful computers and wired VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. In a 2015 TED Talk, she showed how VR recreations of the Syrian civil war and the neighborhood where Trayvon Martin was shot evoked profound emotional reactions from viewers. At SXSW, she explained how viewers reacted viscerally to witnessing a police beating in VR, and noted that minds could be powerfully changed on major political topics when people encountered newsworthy events in 3D.
5G offers the opportunity for an edge computer — one nearby but on a wireless network — to do almost all of the heavy 3D processing VR requires, streaming to a less expensive wireless headset. After a visit to Qualcomm and opportunity to experience wireless 5G VR, de la Peña said that since carriers “are all looking for things to show what 5G can do,” journalists working with VR shouldn’t “be afraid to push the envelope” and should come up with some data-heavy showcases for the technology. The demand from both carriers and users is already there, she said, and is certain to grow as 5G becomes available.