Virtual and augmented reality headset sales are improving after a rocky 2017, but HTC says that VR and AR will really take off when 5G networks become available. Unfortunately, both the Vive headset maker and independent analysts are predicting that the convergence between 5G and VR/AR won’t happen in any meaningful way until 2020.
Speaking at the Dubai launch of HTC’s Vive Pro virtual reality headset, the company’s VP of product and strategy, Raymond Pao, expressed optimism about 5G’s coming impact on both VR and AR. Mirroring comments made by 5G chipset developer Qualcomm, Pao told Gulf News that “VR and AR could be the perfect fit for 5G,” noting that “there are limitations for current devices, but with a better communication protocol, we can move more computing power to the cloud … that way, we can make the device lighter. We can avoid the cable and cloud connection.” As the logic goes, consumers will flock to lighter, tetherless headsets.
The major holdup will be the actual availability of 5G networks, potentially on both the transmitting and receiving sides of VR experiences. While the report mentions that HTC expects the 5G-VR convergence to boost sales around 5G’s “2020” launch date, actual 5G launch dates vary: Multiple carriers across the globe have announced plans to launch 5G networks in 2019, and in some cases U.S. carriers are even targeting the second half of 2018.
Sadly, a Forrester research report shared with VentureBeat throws cold water on an earlier 5G-VR convergence. Despite expressing general skepticism about the current state of VR, the report notes that vendors are making big bets on the value 5G and AI will bring to VR, while noting that “neither will pay off until 2020.” Tellingly, the report explains that “while Orange showcased a 5G VR experience that transported MWC attendees into a tower on a bridge with a real-time feed of the views and people in the tower, it was created through a temporary 5G network that won’t be commercially available until 2020.”
Strictly speaking, a 5G network might only be needed on the user’s side to empower a 5G VR headset to display images. This would require as-yet-unreleased 5G VR headset-receiving hardware, plus stereoscopic camera hardware transmitting on a network with both high bandwidth and low latency. Some remote locations, even including bridge towers, are already equipped with wired or wireless cameras for viewing on TVs and computers.
But 5G’s big pitch is that it will beat earlier wireless standards — and rival wholly wired Ethernet — as the lowest-latency source of streaming live, ultra high-resolution imagery. Under the right conditions, 5G promises to reduce sending and receiving latency to imperceptible levels. As Forrester suggests, however, those conditions are unlikely to exist on both sides of a truly remote transmission, to say nothing of the infrastructure between them, until at least 2020.
HTC also noted that its vision is to bring VR technology into normal eyewear, though it suggested that this too is a long-term challenge. “We need to overcome so many barriers, and it may take between three to five years,” said Pao. “What we are now planning is how to make the headset lighter and improve the resolution.” The company’s attempts to improve wireless performance, including even the latest wireless adapters, have been limited by the latency and bandwidth limitations of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.