With 3GPP’s planned Release 18, Extended Reality (XR) is listed as a high priority to support with 5G Advanced. Both AR and VR are expected to see significant growth over the next two years, in both consumer and enterprise markets, so the 5G Advanced timing lines up perfectly with a bigger and broader XR market.
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What is 5G Advanced?
5G Advanced is the branding for a collection of network enhancements planned for Release 18 from 3GPP. There have been three official “releases” since 5G launched, which brought the now well-known 5G capabilities into play like low latency and higher bandwidth. 5G Advanced promises increased download and upload speeds (50Gbps/10Gbps) as well, but that is perhaps the least interesting element of the release. Greater network coverage and ultra-low latency are highlights, but the list of planned enhancements is vast. Thanks to the focus areas of some of these improvements, especially improved low latency, Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) devices and services are in the spotlight.
AR and VR has been grouped with 5G for years, as the understanding of AR/VR experiences has revolved around low latency content delivery and reliability. That is only part of the story, but AR/VR as connected devices requiring strong and reliable content delivery is a constant.
5G Advanced promises increased understanding of applications and content. This would allow networks to identify Extended Reality (XR) applications and that application’s specific latency and bandwidth needs (as there is no constant need, even in XR). Low latency applications, like multiuser instances or edge compute and streaming scenarios, can be catered to separately than other applications, even XR applications that do not require low latency. Real-time adjustments, such as resolution and framerate of content, can be made more quickly and accurately to ensure quality of service.
Other elements of 5G Advanced also support AR and VR applications intrinsically, even if not specifically tasked to do so. Enhancements for edge compute, Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML), slicing, proximity-based services, security, real time communications, and automation, among many others, all can play a role in XR connectivity and usage. AI/ML will be used to optimize networks in terms of load balancing and energy efficiency and can expand into beam management and positioning—something beneficial to XR mobility use cases.
Build it, but Keep Expectations Realistic
There has been significant discussion with traditional 5G and the benefits it brings to AR and VR, namely low latency and higher overall throughput. While this is applicable and valuable in a handful of use cases, most of the market has not leveraged 5G as a key enabler. Use cases either do not require the latency and/or bandwidth improvements 5G can bring, or they are adequately served by existing connectivity infrastructure and technology already.
5G Advanced is not guaranteed to change this—there will still be use cases that are not latency sensitive or work well enough with Wi-Fi, 5G, or even 4G. However, a couple notable differences in the market around the 5G Advanced rollout changes this dynamic.
There will be the beginning of ubiquitous XR adoption. Major players in the tech space like Apple, Google, Meta, and others are expected to have one or more XR devices in the market. The software and services space surrounding these potential devices have been steadily maturing already over the past few years through small scale HMD adoption, as well as larger-scale mobile devices leveraging AR.
With this larger market, XR usage will be less targeted and more ubiquitous as well. Instead of enterprises targeting very specific use cases and target environments, XR can be a more generic digitization or enterprise mobility purchase, where devices are known to have broad usage. The focused approach enterprises have had in the XR space so far allows connectivity situations to be tailored along with use cases, so the end user dynamic and environment is a confirmed entity and so connectivity can be ensured. With broader adoption, connectivity and/or where devices are used cannot always be guaranteed.
No matter what it is called, it’s up to customers and end users to demand 5G Advanced and make use of it. Some usage will happen with natural market maturation. XR follows the smartphone market closely thanks to similar processing/connectivity architecture and even smartphone reliance in the case of tethered devices. As smartphones naturally have moved to 5G with XR following, the same will be true of 5G Advanced. The enhancements specifically for XR will mostly happen in the background, and users may not even be cognizant of the capabilities and improvements—Quality of Service should only be user noticeable if it falters. There is opportunity for telecoms to use 5G Advanced as another value add for customers, just as 5G was. When it comes to XR-specific go to markets, by the time 5G Advanced is marketable users will be more receptive to that potential value add. It will take the consumer market to push demand as enterprise may recognize 5G Advanced benefits more easily, but the revenue and userbase is always in consumer. This is especially true with XR; the expected launch of prominent AR and VR hardware from tech incumbents will align with both mature XR software and service efforts as well as 5G Advanced rollout, creating a compelling ecosystem for all parties.