With its low latency rate and high data throughput, 5G technology should in theory be something for Canadian extended reality (XR) producers to celebrate. (XR includes both augmented and virtual reality.) But, in practice, based on interviews with content producers right in the thick of things, it doesn’t change much and there are other issues of greater concern.
Toronto-based XR content producer Karen Vanderborght encountered a serious technology glitch when she rolled out her Greymatter exhibition. Greymatter is an art project that uses Snapchat filters to get younger generations to engage with content about seniors.
“The internet connection was the problem,” Vanderborght says. “To start off, people were invited to download some Snapchat filters by scanning a poster. Trouble was if their phone had a low data rate, the filters took too long to download. People have less and less patience today, and many just gave up and walked away.”
With potential download speeds of up to 20 Gb/s and 1-millisecond latency, 5G should have made a huge difference for Greymatter. It can actually let you stream 360° immersive video online without any compromise to 4K by 4K resolution. “That would certainly simplify the delivery of virtual reality projects,” says Vanderborght. “You could create a project directly in WebXR and forget about having to develop an app for headsets.”
Vincent McCurley, a Vancouver-based XR content creator with the National Film Board, sees new opportunities on a number of augmented reality projects requiring massive volumes of geolocation data. “With latency of just one millisecond, we can see creating multiplayer augmented reality experiences for up to 20 people in the same location with zero geolocation lag,” he says.
5G is just one technological challenge among many
Funny thing is that despite the above-mentioned benefits, the XR creators we interviewed only gave 5G a tepid thumbs up. What gives? Two flies in the ointment. One is that full deployment of the technology will be a long time coming, if it comes at all. Two is that 5G is no way near solving many of the problems linked to the production and distribution of XR content.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath for them reaching the 1-millisecond latency objective,” McCurley says. “We’ve all learned from experience to take technology’s promises with a grain of salt. The reality will probably be more like 5 to 10 milliseconds.”
Karen Vanderborght has her doubts that 5G will be deployed evenly in all cities and neighbourhoods. “I’ve been paying for a high-speed internet for years, and I’m still constantly having to call in tech support,” she says. “Canadian mobile data plans continue to be high-priced compared to other countries. They’re going to have to find a way to make them a lot more affordable.”
“Transmission is only part of the problem,” says McCurley. “Even the powerful computers we use in our offices have a hard time when it comes to processing 360° immersive video.”
Marine Leparc is a former Quebec/Canada XR Group project lead. Her big concern is headsets. “One of the major obstacles in spreading the XR word is the complete lack of headset standardization. There are new ones coming out every six months,” she says. “No one really knows which headset to buy. There’s no way of telling what types of content they’ll work best with or how long they’ll be good for.”
Then there’s the human factor…
Of course, the top concern for those producing XR content is the end user. How do you make extended reality experiences something everyone can enjoy? Not just easy to access and consume by large numbers of people but pleasing and even cathartic.
“Shutting yourself off from the world in a wraparound AR headset is not everyone’s idea of fun,” Karen Vanderborght says. “You don’t even know what’s beside you. I can’t imagine users getting into the habit of experiencing this alone in their living rooms. Not when they can relax on the couch, turn off their minds, and go down the Netflix stream.”
Vanderborght says that the real problem augmented reality faces is logistical. “It takes a lot of space to get the most out of an AR project. “Many people are living in smaller and smaller places. They really don’t have the room for this kind of experience.”
Vanderborght believes that XR will only succeed in becoming part of our lives as a collective experience. “It has to be linked to something special. It works really well for events or in employee group training situations. Maybe one day, there’ll be dedicated XR venues, just like the video game arcades of days gone by.”
Marine Leparc has no doubt that XR creators should focus on content – on the medium and not on the container – if they want XR to go mainstream. “Sure, the technology is interesting, but for me, content must always come first. The first time a train pulled into a cinema screen, it caused an audience stampede to the exits! Remember that the real power of innovation comes out in the medium itself.”