5G VR – a canary in the telecom coal mine?

5G VR – a canary in the telecom coal mine?

This is the third post in a series of articles discussing 5G and what comes next.

The second post is here “Distributed Cloud Attempt #2 — Edison Failed 1000 times too”.

The first post is here — “Why the future of telecom will not be its past”.

This post is all about virtual reality. It builds on the observation made in the first post about the needed latency to meet the internal human needs of seamless interaction between our own physical and nervous systems. Seven milliseconds is how long the vestibulo-ocular reflex takes, the reflex that coordinates eye and head movements in the human body.


Fly (green background)


Re-defining VR (virtual reality)

What is virtual reality (VR)? Wikipedia answers the question this way:

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer technology that uses Virtual reality headsets, sometimes in combination with physical spaces or multi-projected environments, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment.

How 2017 of us. This technology is actually the next virtual reality, not the first. But if this is true, we need another definition of virtual reality that includes the previous transformations and “virtual realities”.

Virtual reality (VR) is the extension of our one or more of our senses to interact in real time beyond their natural limitations, through the application of innovative technology. — Geoff Hollingworth, bed, Sept 27, 2017

There are some key anchor words in this definition that do not appear in the Wikipedia definition that grants this blog post a space to have discourse.


A broadly acceptable definition of a sense would be “a system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that responds to a specific physical phenomenon, and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.”

Traditionally there are 5 human senses — sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation).

Then within our discussion of senses, we have to understand what reality is. Reality is the combination of all senses into a perceived understanding of what is true OR might be true.

Reality is simply a “hallucination we all agree is true” — “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”, Anil Seth, TED

We don’t know what the world is. If we could “see” infra-red, the world would have very different colors. If we could hear higher frequency sounds the world would play a very different tune.

“Natural limitations”

Our zone of interpretation is defined by how far our senses “sense”. The natural limitations are quite limited and localized and helped us to avoid immediate life-threatening danger in the “perceived world of reality”. They worked quite well until we wanted to sense and learn beyond immediate survival.

Each time we extend beyond the immediate, there is a transformation in how humans and society can and do behave.

Each extension changes the capabilities of each human that participates, giving their sensors “super power” and allowing their reality to become augmented and/or “virtual”.

Let’s explore the “virtual” progression that started at least 500 years ago, perhaps more.

The Existing Generations of VR

1600-1800's —  Sight VR, asynchronicity

Sight is the first sense “to get super-powers”. The innovative technology was the telescope. The telescope enabled stars to be appear closer to the human than they actually were. The human who used his new superpower to change the world was Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science.


By Tamasflex - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9749946


In 1609, Galileo used the telescope to prove the Earth went around the Sun and was not the center of the Universe. Galileo changed the whole understanding of how the Universe worked, causing short term challenges to society at the time.

The magic behind the telescope was the invention of glass that led to lenses being able to change the perceived distance of objects to the human eye. Galileo is also cited as an inventor of the compound microscope as he realized that by turning his telescope around and looking through the other end made small things look bigger.

Microscope compound diagram

By Fountains of Bryn Mawr - Own work (Based on this and this work and distributed under the same license)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29413860


This manipulation of light through the clever use of glass lenses created the first augmented sense and the first generation of virtual reality. Note this generation of virtual reality is asynchronous only. Distant objects could be made to look larger. Small objects could be made to look bigger. It did not enable any change in how people interacted with those objects.

But some people used these inventions to create new asynchronous forms of communication. This led to the creation of the semaphore line in the early 1700's and then the electronic telegraph in the early 1800’s. This initial “virtual reality” era is defined by the destruction of distance through the augmentation of sight.

1876… Voice VR, synchronicity

The first extension of human senses and capability in a synchronous way became real in 1876 with the invention of telephony. The sense this transformed? Hearing. For the first time, it was possible to hold a two-way conversation with somebody in real-time, when the other person was too far away to hear naturally. And it was possible to communicate using natural voice.

This magic was enabled through a latency of signal that matched the existing expectations of the brain from living in the natural world. Latency in telephone calls is sometimes referred to as mouth-to-ear delay; the telecommunications industry also uses the term quality of experience (QoE). Voice quality is measured according to the ITU model; measurable quality of a call degrades rapidly where the mouth-to-ear delay latency exceeds 200 milliseconds [Latency (audio) — Wikipedia].

Two-way communication breaks down if the delay from speaking to being heard exceeds 200 ms. One person will start asking the other person if they heard them just as the other person is replying. Then the natural flow of two-way communication becomes brittle and human behavior quickly reverts back to the “over and out” mentality, which provides reliability rather than uncertainty.

And humans hate uncertainty.

Creating a network that ensures a latency less than 200 ms from “mouth to ear” is not a minor activity. It drove the positioning of cables to “central offices” and led to the explosion of wired connectivity.

Wire Center Locations

Map of wire center locations in the US


Initially most communication was within a city since people’s lives were contained within that “world”. But this was just the start. As the cities got connected, countries and continents followed. The first international call (US-Canada) was made on the July 1, 1881, the first transcontinental call (San Francisco- New York) was made on January 25, 1915 and the first transatlantic call (London-New York) was made on March 7, 1926 [Timeline of the telephone” — Wikipeda].

There has been continuous improvement on technology to further shrink distance (latency) and system capacity through electronics, digital and optical. We can now call anybody anywhere in the world, wherever they are. The last step of telephony was removing the cable and introducing the mobile phone. We moved from connecting 1 billion global buildings to 5 billion global people.

1927… TV VR, asynchronicity

Different animals eyes receive and process different flash rates to achieve the perception of movement in the brain.  A fly processes about 4 times as many “image stills” as a human and this explains why it is so hard to swat a fly. Hence the opening image to this post…

When the fly is watching our hand, it sees it as in slow motion. This perception of speed makes our hand appear to the fly that it is moving 4 times slower than we perceive it is moving. This is why it is so hard to swat a fly. Our hand is moving in slow motion when perceived from the seat of the fly.

To watch in reality see the excellent BBC video below:

The killer flies with super-fast vision

Wathc the video

Back to TV.  In 1927 John Logie Baird transmitted a signal over 438 miles (705 km) of telephone line between London and Glasgow and television was born [History of Television — Wikipedia].

For a human audience (not a fly audience) our TV programs must flash images at least 48 times a second. Most TV sets ended up flashing images either 50 or 60 times a second to align with the frequency of the electricity powering the device. If this frame rate is slower than what the brain expects from the real world then the brain perceives something is wrong and either the result is perceived as fake (jumping images) or the human starts to get disorientated, feel ill. Which is a great segue into…

2020… 5G VR (Virtual Reality), Synchronicity

We finally arrive at what people today are describing as “virtual reality” as if it is a new invention rather than the natural progression of a very old existing trend.

5G VR is the real time synchronous marriage of sight and sounds with real (physical movement) and virtual (created).  It is the most complicated form of virtual reality to date and like the telescope, phone, television examples above it will change everything.  BUT…

Do we really need it?

Humans are appalling at predicting the future. There is no need to repeat the list of misguided predictions from the past to validate this point – see Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions for proof. This is because nothing is ever truly needed. Humans are very good at designing around limitations until those limitations become habits and habits disappear into the subconscious.

Do we need 5G VR?

Did we need TV?

Did we need telephones?

Merged Reality


Ericsson ConsumerLab recently published a report — Merged Reality — that revealed insights into how consumers expect virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to merge with physical reality, and that 5G will be a key technology for such experiences to become mainstream.

The researchers argue that when boundaries between people’s perception of physical and virtual reality start to blur, this could result in a drastic impact on lives and society. The way we live, work, and consume information and media will fundamentally change.

But realities will not merge if the user is tethered to a computer or cut off from physical reality. Early adopters of VR/AR expect next-generation networks like 5G to play a central role in this untethering. Thirty-six percent have expectations on 5G to provide VR/AR mobility through a stable, fast and high-bandwidth network. Thirty percent of early adopters also expect 5G to enable tethered headsets to become wireless.

Key findings of the latest report include that 7 out of 10 early adopters expect VR/AR to change everyday life fundamentally in six domains: media, education, work, social interaction, travel and retail. Media is already being transformed and consumers expect virtual screens to start replacing televisions and theaters in less than a year.

5G VR is the hardest virtual reality

We never need anything new. We always need everything new. We should view our current state of affairs as a continuous “day before the iPhone”.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post and titled it “The day before the iPhone.” I was making the point that transformational change, rather than iterative change, comes by looking through a different lens.

This is clearly so difficult to do. In the past two years, the conversations around technology have not really changed at all. Yes, we are going to connect everything. Yes, there is going to be an Internet of Things (IoT). Yes, it is all about big data and real-time analytics. Yes… Yes… Yes… But here we are, just getting more and more disappointed with each big fanfare release of the next iterative iPhone. I hear this one is going to be glass. Wow — that will change my life!

From a challenge point of view, 5G VR is the hardest virtual reality to date since it combines all of the previous generations of virtual reality into one. It must enable vision of real things (telescope) and virtual things (TV) overlaid into one seamless presentation as if there is no difference between either, while combining conversational communication. It all needs to be synchronized according to the requirements of the human brain (easier than meeting the requirements of the fly at least).

Combined, this means a presentation of real world and generated visuals within a 7 ms delay, and conversational sound with a delay of less than 200 ms.

And just as we have seen before, once there is a network that supports what is seen as impossible today, then that network will also support many more things that are also seen as impossible.

Virtual reality is the “canary in the coal mine” of the future.

For more information about distributed cloud infrastructure please see here - http://cloudpages.ericsson.com/distributed-cloud-infrastructure


I highly recommend you read posts one and two in this series When reading the first one try to spot the errors, some of are big and basic, some are subtle and small. The first post sparked the interest of many. Post number 2 corrects these initial errors, score yourself on how many errors you were able to spot. And to be clear Edison did not fail 1000 times. In his own words…

When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” [They did not give up]

In other words, posts one and two in this series are the first two steps in “the thousand steps it took to invent the light bulb” process for 5G VR.  Post three, this post, was the first in the series to ask the question “Why?”

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