The 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC), in Barcelona, has been dominated by phone technology for the past 10 years, and underwent a fundamental and generational shift in 2019 as the technology on display diversified across platforms and was dominated by the impending launch of 5G networks worldwide.
While it’s easy to understand the move from 4G to 5G as a speed boost for YouTube videos, the practical application of 5G network coverage in our daily lives is the bigger technological shift. With 5G, the speed comes from a mobile network with highly powered access points spread out more densely, with extremely low latency (real-time data) and more precise positioning accuracy (10m over 4G and <1m over 5G). This means gigabits of information can be transferred instantly to devices all over the world, with initial speeds of 1GBps and moving to up to 20GBps over the next couple years. That’s 40 times faster than your in-home Wi-Fi.
Beyond phones, there will be more connected devices around us, including autonomous vehicles, IoT sensors, head-mounted displays, cameras and in-home Wi-Fi, all performing critical AI processing on these edge networks. Which means that in the next couple years it’s likely you’ll connect home devices like your smartphone, tablets, Alexa, Nest and smart appliances directly to your 5G network.
Your future 5G connection is likely to come from your mobile data provider, with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint/T-Mobile all rolling out localized 5G to major markets this year; T-Mobile has pledged that its 5G data won’t cost any more than its current plans. The first 5G networks to launch will be coverage- and feature-limited, but by 2020, the coverage will expand fully to connect over 54 million people, ramping up to 1.5 billion by 2024.
Rise of the 5G Phones
With 5G center stage at MWC, the device manufacturers showed off their upcoming handset releases throughout the week. Taking “Best in Show” was the Huawei Mate X, which unfolds from a 6.6" two-sided display to an 8" tablet, roughly the size of an iPad Mini. While the foldable phone is novel in concept, the risks associated with an evolutionary generation device run high (see bendgate, antennagate and the Note 7) and at almost $2,000 the Mate X will remain luxury for a while. For the rest of us, LG, Xiaomi, Samsung and ZTE announced their newest lines of smartphones that will run on the first 5G mobile networks.
These smartphones pack features that show marked improvements to biometric security, camera arrays, AI-enabled photos and video, and even blockchain technology.
The LG G8 ThinQ showed gesture-based biometric security: you wave your hand over the screen, and the front-facing cameras will authenticate and unlock your phone by scanning the veins in your palm. The LG G8 also showed off its video portrait mode, which will blur the background while keeping the foreground in focus, making videos look more cinematic with the use of an onboard AI.
The Nokia 9 PureView was billed as the “ultimate camera phone” and showed off its impressive 5-camera array. Different from most phones, which have a wide-angle and macro lens, all five of the PureView’s cameras have the same aperture and field-of-view. When a user takes a photo, the entire array activates at the same time and composites the shots into one image. This improves digital zoom dramatically without leaving behind artifacts and noise.
The HTC Exodus 1 is the world’s first blockchain phone. Launched in 2018, the Exodus 1 was available for purchase solely with Bitcoin or Etherium cryptocurrency. Now the device can be purchased with real currency and is intended very much as a 1.0 device. Onboard the device is a “secure enclave,” separate from the Android OS, that holds personal and biometric information, a digital cryptocurrency wallet and, in the future, more applications that rely on the blockchain to make transactions and decentralize security.
Everything 5G Connected
Beyond the smartphone and tablet, major manufacturers like Microsoft, Google, HTC and more showed off brand-new categories of devices.
Most notably, Microsoft showcased the HoloLens 2, an augmented reality head-mounted display that packs a full onboard PC and an array of cameras and sensors to enable holographic computing. The first HoloLens launched in 2016 and was exclusively a developer’s device, packing limited field of view and processing capabilities. Coming later this year, the HoloLens 2 doubles the original’s field of view, packs a dedicated AI engine, and has been redesigned from the ground up to be more comfortable and more powerful for everyday use. New to the HoloLens 2 is eye-tracking technology to allow the device to understand what objects, real or virtual, you are interacting with. This feature allows the user to touch and interact with virtual objects as if they were real, and finally moves us away from the point-and-tap/click UI common to the last generation of hardware. The HoloLens 2 is targeted primarily to enterprise workers and applications, but it looks to be a powerful tool for enabling remote assistance, on-site virtualization and telepresence.
While Microsoft showed off the high end of AR, Qualcomm highlighted new smartphones packing 5G and its Snapdragon 855 chip to power smart glasses, with a USB cable making the high-speed connection to the AR display. By offloading the computing power, smart glasses can be smaller, making them more likely to be adopted by the mass market.
That same Snapdragon chip powers the HTC 5G Hub, a battery-powered 5G connection for up to 20 devices to enable high-speed connectivity. Devices like the HTC Hub can replace the need for in-home Wi-Fi networks connected to broadband internet and will be exclusive to the Sprint network at launch.
With the instant connectivity of 5G, our virtual assistants can be more ubiquitous and ambiently intelligent. From the automakers, BMW’s Natural Interaction system combines the car’s onboard OS with BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant, allowing you to use voice or gesture controls and gaze interaction built into the dashboard while simultaneously processing your driving data, destination and road conditions, promising a more natural interaction—for example the ability to point at something on the road and request additional information, like movie showtimes or restaurant reservation availability. Look for this to launch in 2021 with the upcoming fully electric BMW iNEXT SUV.
Utility Beyond Hardware
While the attendees of MWC 2019 came to see the rollout of the newest devices, the technical demos bring together the 5G connection, the hardware and the software to showcase first-of-its-kind experiences. Whole industries, like healthcare, can be empowered and disrupted by 5G network connectivity. The capability of real-time data was showcased live at Mobile World Congress when Dr. Antonio Maria de Lacy oversaw the removal of a cancerous tumor from a patient who was in surgery three miles away. Using a telestrator, Dr. De Lacy could remotely indicate his instructions to the surgeons in the operating room during a critical procedure.
For marketers, 5G will bring instant connectivity to consumers and a flood of data from AI cameras, wearables and IoT sensors embedded into our everyday world. With remote assistance and telepresence over high-speed networks, brands will provide not only the product, but also the constantly connected experience that empowers that product. For entertainment, 5G will bring instant 4K streaming video and interactive features that adapt to a user’s point of view, without needing to take a break to make a decision, like viewers did with Netflix’s Black Mirror “Bandersnatch”. Millions of storytelling permutations can be made on the fly, adapting to users’ decisions and dynamically leading them through a seamless experience. The real question remains: How soon before I never have to see a “buffering” message again?