The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of new technologies for virtual work and play in 2020, but mixed-reality formats remained somewhat hampered by the uneven rollout of 5G, according to wireless and technology executives.
That is set to change in 2021 as more 5G-compatible devices and applications hit the market and consumers become more aware of the next-generation wireless standard's potential, they said.
A Samsung 5G booth at CES 2019
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence
"5G is really going to be the lifeblood" of augmented and virtual reality, said Patrick Costello, a senior director at QUALCOMM Inc. during a Jan. 14 panel discussion at CES, the Consumer Technology Association's annual technology and media trade show.
Consumers do not yet understand the power of 5G and, in turn, augmented reality and virtual reality, said Erin McPherson, head of content and programming at Verizon Communications Inc. McPherson noted that while some manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics (China) Co. Ltd. are selling 5G-enabled devices, lags in compatible infrastructure and applications mean the new devices are not being utilized to their full functionality.
The Verizon executive believes it will take corporate-sponsored experiences in public spaces and venues to demonstrate the capability of the new technology and drive it to mainstream adoption. She envisions a sporting event where attendees can call up custom instant replays on AR glasses, or walk through a city viewing location-based updates through an AR device.
Those experiences will more likely acquaint users to new mixed realities than in-home, niche devices like Oculus Quest, McPherson said.
Beyond increased connectivity with 5G, bringing VR and AR into the mainstream for consumers will also require an appropriate form factor that makes mixed-reality glasses, headsets and handheld devices not only convenient but also stylish. It will not be until 2022 that we see those wearable products coming to market, McPherson predicted.
The pandemic did underscore a need for more virtual meeting places in 2020, and gaming, in particular, benefited as consumers sought out alternatives to shuttered physical venues. The video game Fortnite began hosting live concerts in its virtual space during 2020, for example.
"This is the year gaming comes out of the basement," said Greg Kahn, founder and CEO of Greg Kahn Digital Ventures.
Nigel Tierney, head of content at Verizon's RYOT VR platform, said a colleague of his takes meetings in the virtual world of video game Animal Crossing.
Grace Dolan, vice president at Samsung Electronics America, also pointed to the growth of cloud-gaming services as fueling the growth in gaming platforms. Historically, consumers had to purchase expensive consoles and physical game discs with limited visibility into the value of those investments. Now, companies are increasingly making games available to play in the cloud, and 5G promises to further fuel that trend.
"The future of gaming is going to be cloud, and 5G is going to revolutionize cloud," Dolan said.
Gamers are coming to expect social features once considered a gimmick for interactive technologies, Verizon's Tierney said. The virtualization of education during the pandemic shelter-at-home period is also expanding the demand for social features on platforms that were not created for explicitly social purposes. Meanwhile, the rapid virtualization of workflows to support work-from-home employees is creating a need for new software tools in an array of fields.
"The technology we wanted became the technology we needed," Dolan said.