XR: 5G extends the boundaries of reality

Extended Reality (XR), a generic concept that encompasses all immersive technologies, is slow to deliver on its promises. But 5G is poised to change the game and address some of the challenges by paving the way for an optimised distribution of processing capabilities. The ecosystem and its players are mobilised for this revolution spearheaded by Qualcomm Technologies, a leading innovator in the world of mobile technologies.

"5G can be used for split processing to distribute some of the processing capabilities to the network to take the load off headsets."

Immersive systems known as Extended Reality (XR)—such as virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality—are gaining momentum for both personal and professional uses. However, these systems still have ways to go to deliver on their full potential; they sometimes struggle to achieve their ambition of interconnecting the real world with the virtual one due to technological and physical limitations.

The world as an interface

The immersion revolution is coming, gradually, but it is coming. A player like Qualcomm, global leader in the mobile world, has been investing in VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) technologies – collectively XR – for the past decade. It is confident that these technologies will transform the computing world and that there is an imminent move from traditional devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones) to a new generation of computing epitomised by portable connected objects. “Screens will eventually disappear and the world around us will act as a browser”, predicts Brian Vogelsang, Senior Director of XR Product Management at Qualcomm. “In the future, smartphones may well disappear, and XR will take over”. This dynamic is already underway, with use cases continually developing as much for the general public (mainly in the area of entertainment) as in the B2B sphere, but in segmented approaches. They will, however, still be limited by what current technologies can—or rather cannot—do.

XR + 5G: 5G in the XR equation

How can you make a fluid, seamless and universally accessible extended reality possible on a headset that does not have the same power as a PC, whilst requiring optimal resolution and graphics performance? Some of the answers lie with 5G. Firstly thanks to its direct properties themselves, as well as the leap forward it represents in terms of throughput and latency. But also because it can be used to unload or distribute some of the computing and processing capabilities at the edge of the network and to render images there before they are streamed to the headset. Processing capabilities, which were previously embedded and integrated into the device, can now be shared and partially transferred to the network and the edge cloud, through what is known in the industry as the ‘Cloud XR’. 

XR2, the 5G-ready extended reality platform

The next-generation, high-performance Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 Platform, launched at the end of 2019, was designed to support this split processing and 5G specifications, using mmWave and sub-6 GHz. Qualcomm has launched the world’s first high-performance XR/5G platform, “because we are familiar with the needs of extended reality from both a hardware and software perspective. The chips we integrate with XR terminals require optimisations over and above those found in our smartphones. In terms of hardware, we need to be able to support several cameras. As opposed to a maximum of three or four cameras in a smartphone, XR2 currently supports seven. When it comes to software, artificial intelligence must be given a leading role. It plays a major role in tracking and managing information from the sensors on headsets. A combination of AI and artificial vision is at work to read, understand and predict user positioning and movements. XR2 technology allocates and dedicates blocks of hardware to these AI and artificial vision streams, for optimal and low-power processing”. These new capabilities will allow existing and emerging use cases such as holographic telepresence to gain a new dimension and to overcome current constraints.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 5G Platform offers a reference design, tested and validated on Ericsson’s 5G infrastructure, available to headset manufacturers to reduce the time-to-market and design costs.

Working together within the ecosystem

To further facilitate and accelerate the adoption of 5G in general, and of XR in particular, Qualcomm has introduced the concept of ‘XR Viewer’. It initiated a collaborative effort with ecosystem players—among them 15 global carriers, including Orange—to support the development of such products. The principle is simple. Glasses are tethered to a 5G-enabled smartphone, offering a premium way of experiencing extended reality. The ‘XR Optimized’ certification programme for manufacturers of XR viewers and smartphones was launched by Qualcomm at the same time as a way to promote compatibility between these two product families.

“The whole challenge is to think about new models and new use cases in all areas”, adds Morgan Bouchet, Director of Digital Content-Innovation & Head of XR at Orange. “Ultimately, to bring innovative experiences of extended reality to life, for example the metaverse (a persistent 3D virtual world that relies on all or part of the real world), in terms of social interactions. Based on this perspective, joint work with our ecosystem partners, in the technical sphere of course but also in the artistic world, is essential. A carrier like Orange brings its expertise in networking. And Qualcomm, thanks to its technologies, is well positioned to harness all these contributions”.

With 5G, extended reality without limits and constraints will be more than just a promise.

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