Want front row seats to 5G opportunity? Step inside the world of XR
Have you been lucky enough to see your favorite performer in concert? Maybe you could only manage a limited-view seat, or stood buried in a pressing crowd? Now, imagine you could be right there beside the artist – close enough to watch their fingers dance across the strings. What if you could interact with them? Or comment in awe to your friend’s digital avatar beside you – or someone else in the buzzing, interacting virtual crowd of thousands?
Extended reality (XR) may still seem like a far-flung concept – conjuring ideas of other dimensions and worlds. But with new XR technologies from innovative pioneering startups, coupled with the power of 5G and edge computing, immersive multi-user experiences like this are no longer a fantasy.
As discussed in our recent Ericsson Technology Review Magazine – Spotlight on extended reality, many experts feel that emerging XR technologies could lead to the next major paradigm shift in telecom – and even to stylish, lightweight XR glasses overtaking smartphones as the dominant device in mobile networks. And as visitors witnessing a first-of-its-kind virtual concert at the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona discovered, XR technology is already here – and ready to change the way we experience the world around us forever.
The XR virtual demonstration at MWC pulled together a range of different technologies and features that were only used in isolation before – volumetric video of the artist, remote rendering, virtual avatar's, a digital concert, as well as unprecedented scalability to work across virtual reality (VR) headsets, smartphones and even augmented reality (AR) glasses. The result didn’t just deliver a better digital experience, with artists that looked just as they would in real life, it also demonstrated the scalability of a new technology – able to remotely render and stream high-quality XR content to create a fully immersive experience where hundreds and thousands of people could not only watch the show, but also interact with each other.
But this first-of-its-kind demonstration, and many others, could never have taken place without the ecosystem collaborations made possible by the Ericsson Startup 5G program.
Bridging the gap between startups and CSPs
The program, which was established by ConsumerLab, a unit within Ericsson Research, connects and fosters collaboration between communication service providers (CSPs) and the startup community. Leveraging Ericsson’s global insights, technological and industry expertise and local presence, and guided by collaboration and conversation with CSPs, the project identifies and showcases startups whose solutions can help CSPs monetize 5G innovation, evolve their service offerings and, in the long term, play a more significant role in the value chain of emerging technologies like XR.
By joining the Ericsson Startup 5G program, startups have the opportunity to collaborate with CSPs and attend and present their solutions at major events (both international and local) such as Imagine Possible in Santa Clara, Leap in KSA, GITEX in UAE and MWC in Barcelona. The program currently has more than 60 startups, half of which are in the XR space. Three examples that are all working in different ways to bring real-world immersive experiences to life include Condense, Immersal and QuarkXR. We’ll explore this last example in greater depth, as we explore their technology and why it has the potential to bring XR to the masses.
The startup taking XR experiences to the edge
One of the key barriers to new use cases and monetization in XR is how heavy immersive experiences and applications are when it comes to computation and rendering. But with emerging technologies leveraging 5G Standalone (SA) for bounded latency and edge computing to offload the heavy lifting away from the device, high-resolution immersive XR could finally be experienced by anyone, anywhere. This is exactly what QuarkXR, a cloud streaming platform for XR, are striving to achieve.
The promise of XR (when it comes to immersive VR at least) is to provide experiences that are indistinguishable from reality. A key milestone toward achieving this is ensuring that the content updates quickly enough that the user doesn't experience any latency or get motion-sick when moving their head. This is a real challenge when heavy computing is involved. Immersive VR experiences and games today require powerful computers or consoles, and even lightweight XR glasses typically need to be tethered to smartphones to help with the computing.
Where edge compute and 5G help create beautiful new realities
QuarkXR takes advantage of powerful Nvidia GPUs located on the edge (close to the end user) to do sophisticated rendering and run the compute-heavy XR applications. The edge location connected to (usually a local cloud platform) is selected based on the user location – which means support for different platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure, is key. By being cloud platform independent, the application can always be hosted at the best and closest location available, and the same experience can be replicated across providers.
With high-fidelity volumetric video for realistic immersive content, XR applications like our digital concert can easily use over 100 Mbits per second of bandwidth – or much higher, depending on the number of cameras. And in the multi-user scenario, the total bandwidth consumed will increase linearly with the number of users watching the volumetric video streaming in AR.
But with QuarkXR, after the applications are rendered the technology then takes each frame, compresses it into video and sends it via the 5G network, streaming the content straight to the device, using only 15, 20 or 30 Mbit of bandwidth depending on the use case. To add some real-world perspective, video meetings on software like Teams, using WebRTC technology and a decent internet connection, often feel like instant, real-time conversations. They’re fast – but QuarkXR is ten times faster.
By using cloud and edge technologies to offload the computation and rendering, and leveraging the 5G SA necessary for low-latency streaming, the QuarkXR platform can deliver functional, beautiful XR experiences – even to hundreds or thousands of people. In gaming, for example, where consumers have come to expect top quality, nearly photo-realistic graphics and 3D assets, QuarkXR is able to take current XR device capabilities (comparable to PlayStation 3 graphics) and deliver something that looks more like PlayStation 4 or 5 – a generational leap in terms of quality.
The technology also has a failsafe built in. Even if the network drops a frame (which can happen occasionally, even on the best networks), their algorithm can use the last view to create an artificial frame, so the user is still presented with a view of the content which looks right – and helps ensure a responsive, seamless XR experience. Ultimately, the user shouldn’t be able to distinguish if content is running locally, or if it's streamed.
Another significant advantage is that using the QuarkXR platform, which is hardware agnostic (meaning it can be used with all major XR devices) doesn’t require any software development kit (SDK) integration by the developers. This results in easy onboarding to the platform – usually within days. Developers just need to provide a desktop build of their content, and it’s ready to run. By avoiding this friction point, even small startups developing XR software with limited resources can use the platform for their content, unlocking new revenue streams and potential use cases..
Key use cases of XR – powered by 5G and edge compute
Due to the nature of the technology and the new interactivity and immersion it offers, realistic and detailed or advanced 3D XR applications tend to represent the largest opportunities. XR in gaming is already a fairly mature market, and immersive entertainment applications like events at smart stadiums or the virtual concert demonstrated at Mobile World Congress are already becoming a reality. But we’re also seeing a range of applications working well outside of entertainment and gaming.
Remote work platforms, workforce development and training design and architectural visualization and virtual showrooms have all proven to be very successful. There are significant advantages to having an interactive XR showroom that customers can engage with 24/7 – particularly when paired with additional technology such as Convai’s AI-driven avatars. A real estate agency, for example, can create a realtor avatar, feed it with information about a property, and have them greet up to thousands of prospective buyers in an XR virtual home open, available at any hour of the day from anywhere in the world.
This represents tremendous opportunities for business – and is scalable across a number of industries. Automotive firms, retailers, consumer electronics manufacturers, architects or builders, for example, could all benefit from interactive sales experiences.
What is the secret to success for XR applications?
Although there are big-name success stories like Pokemon Go, according to Oculus Publishing there are also over 40 titles from smaller companies on the Meta Quest Store that have generated over USD 10 million in revenue – a massive return on investment. And according to Krasi Nikolov, co-founder and CEO of QuarkXR, the secret to XR success doesn’t come from a strong franchise or complex technical capabilities.
“What we’ve seen working is simple applications that really take full advantage of XR. Content developers shouldn't constrain themselves to making an XR version of something that already exists. Focus on the interactive or immersive possibilities – play to the strengths of the medium. What unique content is there that can only work in XR? Over time, I think we can expect to see more XR-first content and franchises emerging.”
“Another good approach is to take advantage of the social interaction element, and open up accessibility,” Krasi continues. “Let the users generate content – and provide good tools for them to do so. VR Chat, the social platform, is a very good example of this. The platform is also not exclusively XR – it’s also accessible via browser, opening up access to more users and helping build awareness of the XR product and applications. Everybody can participate, but the XR capabilities are still being showcased.”
This exposure and market awareness element actually has an important role to play. One of the largest challenges facing the industry is that people are unaware of the advantages, or what’s possible.
“Most consumers just bought a VR headset to try one or two particular titles that they liked,” explains Krasi. “But there's so much more available out there - for work as well as for fun. We really need to educate the market, so having a less capable version (such as a browser, desktop or mobile version) can be a great strategy to help with this.”
What’s needed to enable an XR future?
This is still a new industry, and bringing the different partners and technologies together can be very challenging. For XR to thrive, it needs support from across the whole ecosystem, particularly in the following areas:
- Easy tools for content creation
Content can pose a particular challenge for XR applications, as producing 3D content is often complex and costly. Services and tools that make content generation easy will be crucial. AI will likely have a significant role to play, such as generative AI tools that can create 3D content on demand in much the same way MidJourney creates a picture based on a given description.
- Collaboration among ecosystem players
As mentioned earlier, educating the market about the possibilities of XR is a big challenge. Many CSPs have already invested a lot in 5G and edge computing, and with XR they can use these technologies to grow revenue – if they understand the emerging use and business cases. To fully realize the potential of XR, CSPs, hyperscale cloud providers (HCPs), application developers, chipset vendors, device manufacturers and other ecosystem players all need to connect and collaborate – which is why programs like Ericsson’s 5G Startup program are so vital.
- Common standards to easily scale globally
For XR applications to scale, developing for edge computing and 5G must be made simple, with common standards allowing the content to be integrated and scaled across many different markets and use cases. Ericsson is helping enable this, through the creation of 5G standards, and the development of 5G APIs that will enable different applications to take advantage of 5G in specific ways, according to their needs.
- Building connectivity and capabilities
As we’ve demonstrated, unlocking the full value of XR will involve providing particular requirements in terms of connectivity, network and edge compute. 5G SA will be paramount to support the low-latency needs of XR, with edge computing a crucial tool for offloading heavy computation. This is the part where technology like QuarkXR is helping – but all ecosystem players such as CSPs and device manufacturers will need to be on board to create the conditions necessary to realize the full value of XR’s potential.
Will XR take over as our device of choice?
So, are XR devices really going to replace our much-loved smartphones in the years to come? If XR technology and the necessary connectivity progress, it seems possible – eventually. In the near future, smartphones will likely still be needed as companion devices, providing 5G connectivity and heavy computer power to the XR glasses. But this may just be a transitional step in the evolution.
We’ve already seen this play out to some extent with smartwatches like the Apple Watch, with connectivity being integrated later so it could be used independently of a phone. Augmented reality (AR) devices offer a much more functional and versatile interface – they just need the connectivity and applications. Many physical devices can then be replaced with digital products. You can have an AR application as your watch – you look at your wrist and it projects and renders a watch there. The only question is battery life – particularly for a slim, stylish device. But by moving most of the XR processing to the mobile network edge, device energy consumption can be reduced by more than seven times.
Historically, the focus for VR headsets has been on the build materials – keeping costs low. But more recently, device manufacturers have become interested in headsets that focus on remote rendering – just the receiver and simple rendering. These would have to be 5G-native for improved connectivity and low latency – particularly if they need to be used outdoors. But this also opens up new opportunities for operators to monetize, with part of the hardware cost being subsidized by a data plan, similar to what we have with some smartphones today.
What can we expect in the long term?
As the ecosystem and technology mature, more opportunities will be unlocked for operators to take on a bigger role in the value chain and expand into different roles, like becoming a service enabler rather than just a service provider. There we enter the realms of permission-based XR – the creation of XR digital assets and applications that are placed over physical assets. Brands can use those assets like advertising on a building, but interactive – where consumers can walk by and it will pop up, with the XR content in a digital twin scenario.
If the technology and ecosystem are properly nurtured, XR will provide a fertile ground for new revenue opportunities. The next question is: what do you want your (virtual) reality to look like?
Find out more about how immersive technologies are changing the way we live and work.
Learn more about Ericsson Startup 5G, a program connecting communication service providers (CSPs) with the right consumer innovation partners to help them accelerate the successful commercialization and monetization of 5G.
Hear what Mischa Dohler, VP of Emerging Technologies had to say about MWC 2023, the AR/VR evolution and the metaverse's downturn.
Explore the impact of connectivity on digital and real-world experiences in our recent Imagine Possible Perspectives.
Gain a better understanding of the changing ecosystems around IT and 5G in our ecosystem evolution blog series.
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