5G, Foldable Phones and ‘XR’: Notes from MWC 2019

5G, Foldable Phones and ‘XR’: Notes from MWC 2019 Cerillion was back  at MWC 2019  in Barcelona to showcase its digital transformation solutions for telcos. As usual, the event offered a great glimpse into the future drivers of the telecoms industry. Brian Coombs picks his favourite moments from the week.

I would have loved to write my insights from MWC 2019 without using the number 5, but with the show’s unofficial moniker being ‘The 5G Show’, it would be an impossible task. MWC 2019 was 5G everything - from industrial robots to robots playing the piano, from VR to holograms, from cows (no me neither, but there were three of them, so it must be a thing!) to cars, everything was connected to something else over 5G, including of course a few smartphones!

5G Everywhere

The good news this year, compared with the last edition, is that 5G has arrived and this time it’s for real! All the leading names had 5G cells set up and it worked most of the time without any perceivable lag, especially when using a VR headset over a 5G connection to a server providing the grunt, compared with having it hardwired, or having to carry a wearable computer with you. 
 
This is where I think a lot of the advantages of 5G will be delivered, with more calculations offloaded to a server elsewhere allowing the device at the front end to be dumber, smaller, lighter and therefore cheaper. The seamless communications being touted for surgery, driverless cars and the likes will still need far better infrastructure as a few of the glitches during the show highlighted. Having your hologram singer being half a second out of lip-sync with a live player is one thing; having the same for your doctor performing open heart surgery is another altogether!

Foldable Smartphones

When it came to phones, the headlines were dominated by the folding efforts of Samsung and Huawei. I'd love to tell you what they were like, but they were securely locked up in glass cabinets, well double glass cabinets in Samsung’s case, and so my take away is that they're clever, but not ready for commercial use yet. In addition, these are far too expensive at the moment. For the record, the Huawei phone looked significantly better than the Samsung foldable phone. As with everything, give it a couple of generations (years!) and you'll be able to pick one up for a reasonable price. Not much else jumped out on the mobile front. Many smartphone makers launched their 5G phones whilst incremental improvements to screens and cameras continued this year as well.   3GPP
 

Is XR the new VR?

3GPP   I can confidently declare after this show that VR is dead - long live ‘X’R where X could be Augmented, Mixed, Simulated or any other word marketing folk can come up with, but the key takeaway was that the total immersion of VR doesn't work well for most things outside of games. To perform useful tasks, you need be able to combine real-world elements with the virtual world in a seamless manner. The interesting thing is the different approaches companies took to mixing the two worlds:
  • Intel showcased ‘Mixed Reality’ - a traditional VR headset with a camerathat fed the live digitalised image back into the virtual world (via 5G of course).The best thing was that you could see your own legs when looking down, typically one of the main immersion breakers in VR.
  • Simulated Reality is the name given to a very impressive, glass-free 3D TV with VR features, from Dimenco. You could see the objects coming out, or going back into the screen and also interact with them with your hands. For instance, there was an Angry Birds-type demo which had you pulling a sling out of the TV and then firing into targets at the back. It is clever stuff and was one of the proper ‘wow’ moments at the show, especially when stepping into the sweet spot and seeing the image come alive.
  • Several companies had traditional AR glasses that continue to improve on the way they blend the worlds, but one company got it very wrong with the virtual image on such a different plane to the real one that you had to shift your focus to switch between the two. It was also very slow to react to what I was looking at, so the overall feeling was of something that got in the way rather than being of any use, a danger sign for any new technology.
  • The clear winner in this space was Microsoft and its HoloLens 2. Putting this on felt like stepping into the future, much like the UI experience from Minority Report. For those who don't know, HoloLens scans the environment and then places virtual objects on top of real things in the world. For instance, one demo showed a construction plan for a new building that was projected on the table in front of you. You could pick one bit up, rotate and expand elements with the usual pinch and twist type gestures and you could even lean in to look through the windows.Another demo had you fixing a motorbike by having arrows drawn on the bike to point to screws that required fixing, tools to pick up and other helpful messages based on eye tracking to keep things focused. This isn't ready for consumers yet, but you can see where it is heading and it's definitely one to watch out for. 

AI behind-the-scenes

AI was floating around but wasn’t as ubiquitous as I expected it to be. ‘AI-empowered robots are the killer use case for 5G’, screamed one stand, possibly something lost in translation there as most people try to keep the words ‘killer’and ‘AI robots’ out of the same sentence! Along similar lines, if somewhat less sensationalist, were quality check robots that took pictures of some widgets, sent them over 5G, analysed them and sent back instructions to another robot half a second further down the production line on whether to approve or reject the widget.

All these examples build on my original point that more off boarding becomes available and realistic with 5G. While there is no doubt that AI has a big future, it is also clear that we are a long way from robots being genuinely smart. The paper plane folding robot showcased at MWC was a prime example. It was very clever that a robot could manage grabbing and folding the paper in an array of scenarios, but as soon as the access to paper was cut off, it banged its “hand” against the blockage for a while and then went through all the folding motions against an invisible sheet beneath it!

Honourable Mentions

Other clever pieces of tech on display included a Xiaomi projector that sat 5cm from the wall and projected a 150” screen with amazing clarity, eliminating the need to balance a projector on top of the screen/chair/person at an ideal spot in the middle of the room. There was also a unique TV which was perfectly clear glass on one side anda 4k picture wielding device on the other!
 
Overall, the show gave the impression of an industry relieved about the fact that 5G has finally arrived and more exciting opportunities are just around the corner. That being said, a lot of businesses are still scrambling around looking for use cases that justify the investment needed, and not enough people are talking about how to monetise it. I look forward to MWC 2020, which will be the first “post 5G” show, to see how many telcos have worked out their monetisation strategies by then. Cerillion, of course, is here to help.