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“We’re only just scratching the surface”: The potential of 5G in creating the metaverse

5G is the next big frontier in enabling new forms of entertainment — especially the metaverse. The technology is starting to catch up with a level of ambition that’s already being displayed in areas like gaming, but more broadly, in an AR and mixed reality world.

As part of GamesBeat’s Into the Metaverse event, Joost van Dreunen, author of One Up, was joined by Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon Consumer Group and John Hanke, Founder and CEO of Niantic, who shared their perspectives on the promise of 5G and the advent of the metaverse.

As Dunne explained, because 5G is vastly more efficient than the previous G’s in carrying data, whether that be speed or capacity, it’s massively relevant in the space of AR as it has the ability to support 10 times as many devices within a square kilometer or square mile.

“5G is probably the first of the generations of wireless technology that allows you to move from what I would describe as two-dimensional experiences to three dimensional,” he said, “i.e., that idea of being genuinely immersive, disruptive, of traditional experiences. Now we have an opportunity, and frankly an open opportunity, to redefine what experience really means in a truly three dimensional [world], one where we integrate between the physical and the digital in a way that couldn’t have been imagined before.”

Hanke notes that 5G comes at a time when the capabilities of 4G have simply been pushed to their limit, in the face of the technology currently leveraging it.

“Our version of the metaverse is bringing people together in the real world and turning the real world into a combined experience of the virtual and the real,” Hanke said. “We had 100,000 people together in Dortmund, Germany [at the 2019 Pokémon Go Fest] playing, chasing Pokémon in this sort of fantasy world overlaid on the real world.”

With 4G networks, when you get that many people together, you begin pushing the limits of a community virtual space that requires a low-latency, high-density, high-data environment.

“So with 4G networks…we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth, just over and over again,” Hanke explained “In AR we need that technology — the density, latency, and bandwidth are critical to realizing the visions that we have for an AR version of the metaverse.”

And while not everything that people will do in 5G requires 5G, everything that the game industry is  excited about doing in 5G, it will need to be done at scale, Dunne adds. The other case for 5G is to overcome the inherent limitations in the technology which, so far, have defined the formats for devices that are connected to the network. When you have ubiquitous high-speed, high-capacity connectivity of 5G, you can marry it up to edge computing and bring computing power to the edge of the network — and create the opportunity to create a canvas that is much more expansive for development in a very practical sense.

But most importantly, said Dunne, “liberating access, affordability, and accessibility is going to be critically important to make sure that this generation of technology is the most inclusive, because overarchingly, technology needs to be in the service of humanity, not the other way around.”

“Sometimes we get confused about that,” he added. “The world is full of highly talented people, it’s just that opportunity is not well distributed. One of the roles technology can play, is to help match talent to opportunity in a way that creates inherent diversity and creativity. And that’s something that we have to commit ourselves to deliver.”

For Hanke, this goes far beyond gaming. “This 5G rollout is really coming at the time when there’s so much work to do around the world really, but especially here in the United States,” he said, “to rebuild our cities, rebuild our urban cores, after everything that’s happened in the past year.”

And the company’s commitment supports that view. Niantic has donated all of its proceeds from its Pokémo GO Fest last year to nonprofits focused on Black businesses in urban cities, as well as funding over $5 million for Black creators to create experiences on the Niantic platform.

The company has also established The Niantic Planet-Scale AR Alliance, which includes Deutsche Telekom, EE, Globe Telecom, Orange, SK Telecom, SoftBank Corp., TELUS, and Verizon. The aim is to make exclusive 5G-ready AR content, and demonstrate consumer AR experiences intended to set the standard for 5G-enabled innovation.

For Hanke, that means focusing on the idea of a metaverse overlaid onto the world — and not an alternative to the world. “These concepts of real world and metaverse are not exclusive,” he said. “We think about a world where you play together with friends in the real world, and the world comes alive with AR overlays powered by these amazing networks and devices. But maybe you can bring virtual friends along too — so this idea that you can transport yourself, not into a purely synthetic world, but out into the real world to participate, to explore, along with people that are there in the flesh.”

Dunne also invited developers to join one of the 5G Labs focused on gaming in six key innovation hubs across the United States and Europe.

“We’re only just scratching the surface of the potential,” he said. “So if you’re in any way interested, encouraged, excited, enthused by what you’ve heard, come on board.”

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