Business / Tech

Smartphone industry headed for virtual reality check as Japan gets 5G

by Kazuaki Nagata

STAFF WRITER

Unleashing virtual monsters into real-world environments, Pokemon Go has captivated millions of gamers who enjoy strolling around town holding up their smartphones to hunt them.

The concept of the location-based game that debuted in 2016 may be a prelude to what the world will look like in the next decade or so in the era of 5G.

Lagging a year behind some of its peers, Japan’s major mobile carriers launched their 5G rollouts last month. The new communications network is being hyped as the beginning of a new digital age, with buzzwords like internet of things, autonomous driving and digital transformation front and center in news stories and marketing slogans.

But how exactly will 5G change people’s everyday lives?

One thing to expect, according to those in the industry, is closer integration of software engineers’ virtual worlds with the real one.

Taking advantage of 5G’s capabilities — high-speed data transmission and low latency connectivity — more elaborate augmented reality and virtual reality will be blended into people’s communications and entertainment, experts predict.

5G networks are also seen as likely to facilitate the rise of new devices, such as smart glasses, that might surpass smartphones in popularity.

Since coverage is quite limited for now, it may take years for the general public to actually feel the changes brought about by 5G.

AR is a technology that allows digitally crafted content to be visualized in real-world surroundings via cameras, and Pokemon Go has brought it closer to the general public. Given its growing popularity in video games, developers believe 5G will increase its momentum within and beyond the industry.

“We think AR will spread as a communication tool,” including in games, said Toshiaki Morimoto, chief executive of Graffity Inc., a Tokyo-based AR-game startup.

Graffity developed the multiplayer smartphone shooters Pechabato and HoloBreak, where players fire at AR marks that appear around other players. The games are played by watching the AR graphics through their cameras and moving around physically to dodge and hit their rivals’ marks.

Naturally, the games involve physical activity, but the technology often has problems keeping up, Morimoto said.

“With the current 4G network, there is a little delay when an AR mark follows a player. So, sometimes even when a player dodges a shot, the mark gets hit,” he said.

Toshiaki Morimoto, chief executive at Graffity Inc., demonstrates HoloBreak, its augmented reality shooting game. | KAZUAKI NAGATA
Toshiaki Morimoto, chief executive at Graffity Inc., demonstrates HoloBreak, its augmented reality shooting game. | KAZUAKI NAGATA

This is where 5G’s ability to transfer large volumes of data fast and with low latency suits AR perfectly. The target latency rate in 5G is just 1 millisecond, which is 10 times better than 4G. This improvement will allow for instantaneous responses and a smoother playing experience in AR shooting games like Graffity’s.

5G networks will also allow game developers to craft richer content.

Games with AR graphics tend to be rather simple because elaborate games require a lot of data and thus fast, high-capacity networks to function. 5G’s data transmission speeds are up to 100 times faster than 4G.

There are also other signs that the use of AR will be more common in the 5G era, such as moves by major trendsetter Apple Inc. The Cupertino, California-based giant is reportedly developing smart glasses scheduled to debut in a couple of years.

While 4G networks have helped spread the adoption of smartphones around the world, experts are uncertain how long the smartphone’s reign will last.

Morimoto predicts smart glasses will become popular thanks to a combination of 5G and AR. Since AR involves the closely integrated use of optical and camera systems, glasses are well suited to the technology.

Tsutomu Taguchi, who heads NTT Docomo Inc.’s 5G promotion team, noted that smartphones are likely to be people’s main devices for a while because they have grown so familiar.

But it is possible 5G will pave the way for new services more compatible with different devices. Smartphones are not necessarily well-designed for AR and VR content, Taguchi noted.

In fact, NTT Docomo is betting on smart glasses as well. The carrier invested about ¥30 billion in U.S.-based startup Magic Leap, which develops AR glasses. Google and Alibaba are also investors in Magic Leap. Docomo has said it will sell Magic Leap’s device sometime this year.

Factors propelling the rise of AR are not only 5G but also the evolution of cameras and sensors, said Takuya Kamei, senior researcher at Nomura Research Institute.

Indeed, recent product unveiling events by leading smartphone makers show that what they are most interested in showing off is their cameras.

Some of the latest smartphones are equipped with multiple lens systems and sensors with more than 100 million pixels and the capability to shoot 8K ultra-high-definition images.

The improvement of smartphone cameras and sensors will further accelerate the habit of seeing things through camera lenses, he said.

“I am not sure if smartphones will be their main device in the next 10 years, but cameras will still be necessary, and a major change to be expected is that people will be holding up cameras over everything,” he said.

Clefairy, a character from the popular augmented reality game Pokemon Go, developed by Niantic Inc., is shown in front of Man Mo Temple on a smartphone in Hong Kong. | BLOOMBERG
Clefairy, a character from the popular augmented reality game Pokemon Go, developed by Niantic Inc., is shown in front of Man Mo Temple on a smartphone in Hong Kong. | BLOOMBERG

Kamei predicts that more digital information will be integrated into everyday scenes.

For instance, if someone holds up a smartphone in front of a restaurant and sees it through the camera, the restaurant’s rating or its menu may pop up as AR content.

Sports is also a field that may see more AR integration.

KDDI Corp., one of the three major domestic carriers, already provides dozens of spectators at Toyota Stadium — home to the J. League soccer team Nagoya Grampus — with smart glasses to enjoy matches in AR. The smart glasses can display such details as number of shots and passes in real time.

That said, the coverage area for 5G is still very limited, so it will probably take years for a world of “mixed realities” to develop to the point where the general public notices it, people in the industry say.

Asked whether the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed plans to expand 5G coverage, Docomo said its plans haven’t been affected at this point but that it will carefully monitor the situation.

“It’s not that we can fully take advantage of 5G in no time,” said Taguchi. “It’s the same as the previous mobile communication systems, such as 4G,” which were developed step by step.

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