5G visions in Barcelona: Cars, robots and VR games

Carriers and network builders plan next-generation teasers at Mobile World Congress

Police stand by at Fira Barcelona for any unruly show goers. Credit: Nick Barber

Robots, cars and virtual-reality headsets will turn heads at Mobile World Congress later this month, but the real star of these shows will be the still-nascent 5G standard.

Practically every mobile vendor and service provider will have demonstrations -- or at least visions -- of what they think the next generation of mobile will be able to do. Showing off hoped-for features this year is part of the long run-up to the commercial launch of 5G in 2020, with a few people getting pre-standard forms of the technology just two years from now.

Carriers planning those early deployments, like SK Telecom and NTT DoCoMo, will have a lot to say about them at MWC. Chip makers like Intel and Qualcomm, naturally, will also get in on the game. Network vendor Ericsson has already given glimpses of a 2018 rollout it's planning with TeliaSonera, and this week, rival Nokia previewed demonstrations it'll run on the show floor.

The new standard will be faster than 4G: Nokia, for example, says it can hit a peak of 30Gbps (bits per second). But there's a lot more in the works for 5G, including shorter delays, which could account for some of its coolest capabilities. 

1. Cars

Network delay is a common refrain in discussions of 5G. Executives from some of the major infrastructure vendors say they expect fundamental changes from 4G to allow for lower latency.

This is something LTE just can't do, they say. It's less about pushing lots of data over the air and more about making sure the bits arrive at the right time. The goal is 1 millisecond of latency, which would require networks to do some things as much as 10x faster than they do with 4G.

One reason to have lower latency is for smarter cars, because auto accidents can happen in a flash. The hope is for vehicles to share real-time location data over a 5G network so they won't run into each other. Though self-driving cars can already see the traffic around them using sensors, 5G might give them better information so they can travel closer together and still be safe.

At MWC, Nokia will demonstrate cars that communicate where they are and where they're headed using potential 5G features. Sending cars hurtling toward each other with only an experimental network to prevent crashes sounds exciting, but they'll only be model cars, at least this year.

2. Virtual Reality

In a demo that could combine the high speed and the low latency being sought for 5G, Nokia plans to let attendees play catch using only VR to watch each other and the ball. A VR system will track the positions and movements of two players and of the ball they're tossing back and forth. When you're counting on a wireless network to tell you where a ball is so you can catch it, low latency is critical. Nokia will be betting its 5G prototype has what it takes.

3. Industrial robots

Another key role for 5G will be to link the Internet of Things, letting cells communicate with thousands of sensors and machines instead of just a few hundred phones. This could help to connect lights and parking meters in smart cities but may also have implications for enterprises. At MWC, Nokia will demonstrate industrial robots staying in sync using potential 5G technologies. They'll each do the exact same thing at the same time, another demonstration of 5G low latency. No word on whether the robots will make anything. Maybe they'll just dance.

4. Stadium video

Another high-speed, just-in-time demonstration will simulate a video multicast to thousands of mobile device users in a sports venue. Nokia says 5G will allow fans to see camera feeds from vantage points all around a stadium or racetrack with virtually no delay thanks to its low latency. The company will demonstrate this on the show floor instead of, say, taking over a stadium and pitting engineers from Nokia's Ozo VR camera team against its new Bell Labs research division in soccer. But there will be multiple cameras, views and phones involved in the show-floor demo.

5. Remote medicine

This is one of the marquee applications Ericsson is promoting in connection with its limited 5G rollout with TeliaSonera, planned for 2018. Its vision is to eventually use low-latency 5G networks for surgery when a doctor can't be in the same place as the patient. The movement of the doctor's hands will control instruments in the body. "The surgeon should really feel like he's holding the real stuff," said Erik Dahlman, a senior expert in radio access technologies at Ericsson. By the time this is possible, there may be operating rooms on the MWC show floor, but it won't happen this year.

With the 5G standard still at least four years off, users will be relying on it far into the future. So even these ambitious applications are just the beginning of what the new technology will need to handle, Dahlman said.

"We want to be better than the applications we can see now, because there may be new applications that we don't even know about yet."

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