Extended Reality

The ARPost Guide to 5G Internet and XR

5G internet is the future. But, what does it mean exactly?


The extended reality community is just bristling at the news of 5G internet. However, considering the fact that most people who use XR don’t exactly have degrees in the field, it can be easy to feel left behind.

What is 5G internet? Why is it so important to extended reality? Does it cause health problems? We’ll answer all of these questions and more in the ARPost Guide to 5G in XR.

What Is 5G Internet?

“5G” is short for “5th Generation.” “Generations” of the internet are roughly defined based on the data speeds that they allow and the media that can be supported by those data speeds. At what point a new generation of the internet has taken off is usually debatable, but each generation of internet has historically had its run for about ten years.

All internet works basically the same: it manipulates radio waves to send digital signals.

5G internet does this by utilizing the “macro” cell towers that we’re familiar with as well as more smaller “micro” cell towers. This combination of tower types ensures better coverage, but it also takes advantage of wave spectrums that 4G can’t.

Currently dominant 4G allows for things like gaming and streaming video. Frankly, it’s fast enough for most people to run most of their applications without difficulty. However, with an increased number of mobile devices running increasingly complex programs, 4G’s days are numbered.

One of the major selling points for 5G internet has to do with a process called “edge computing.” This process does some computing on a device, some computing at a nearby data center, and keeps some information on the cloud, all to run the same application.

Some computing companies, like NVIDIA, are already using this technology to run artificial intelligence-aided applications. It could also solve some of the security concerns that many enterprise XR users have.

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Another potential security solution comes from the different towers. XR devices switching between public and private networks depending on the needs and sensitivity of the program could help to keep information secure.

5G and the Future of XR

5G internet isn’t only capable of enabling more devices. It’s believed to be capable of running programs that require advanced computing power. Both of these are required for advanced extended reality applications – and spatial computing applications that use similar technology but with less focus on optics.

Autonomous vehicles are a prime example. They don’t just need to know where they are going, they also need to know what’s around them. This requires “Geopose” – the association of digital information with physical location.

Geopose is used to share information in the case of autonomous vehicles but it is also required for location-based AR experiences – AR experiences that are anchored to real-world locations. The digital information tied to physical locations and entities is alternatively referred to as the “Visual Cloud,” “Mirror World,” “Metaverse,” “AR Cloud”, or any other number of terms.

Right now, most AR experiences superimpose information from the internet as we know it over our field of view. The interaction between digital artefacts pinned to the real world but visible through a headset requires a lot more computing power, which will come with 5G internet.

The interaction between these devices is called the Internet of Things. Our interaction with IoT through special technology, like mixed reality, is the future.

When Is 5G Coming?

So, if 5G internet is so cool, why don’t we have it already? We do. Sort of.

5G internet has actually existed for a while now. The problem is that – like any other technology, it requires large-scale infrastructure before everyone can use it. And, if you recall from the conversation above, 5G internet requires additional towers to be erected. Carriers that want to offer 5G (read, “all carriers”) can’t just update existing towers.

Not only that, the devices that we use have to have a special processing chip. Pioneering computer companies like Qualcomm and Intel are already releasing modems and mobile devices that can run 5G – but only in areas that have 5G coverage.

When 5G is coming to an area near you depends on where you are. Most service providers estimate more-or-less universal coverage by the end of 2021.

Why Is It Taking So Long?

Just about every major carrier has their own 5G networks, and their coverage maps aren’t all the same. This makes it a bit of a puzzle to sort out which areas have 5G and which don’t. Further, as promising as 5G is, there are a lot of people that want nothing to do with it.

As with every new technology, some people have fears that 5G will cause various health effects. Some have even tied 5G to coronavirus.

The link likely comes from the fact that 5G internet is currently only in urban centers and areas with the highest population density, which also tend to have a greater incidence of coronavirus – or anything else. In other words, the logic behind saying that 5G towers cause coronavirus or cancer would also suggest that 5G towers cause the proliferation of barbershops and public elementary schools.

This doesn’t mean that health experts don’t think about 5G. The American Cancer Society has a page dedicated to cell phone towers, including a rather lengthy discussion on the 5G debate. Their verdict: We have no reason so far to believe that 5G internet causes health problems.

One Last Hurdle

As 5G towers continue to rise around the country and the cost and availability of 5G-enabled devices become more accessible, one more problem remains in the way for 5G. It’s a problem that already exists within extended reality, and which some experts believe will get worse rather than better. That’s interoperability.

Interoperability is the ability of different devices and services to work together, even if their operating systems or service providers are different. Think trying to open a Google Doc in OneDrive, only that document is an autonomous vehicle, or a piece of manufacturing equipment, or medical information.

Right now, all of this is almost a moot point because there are so few 5G applications. That’s part of the goal of a group called the 5G Open Innovation Lab. While this group is working on a network of companies to populate 5G networks with apps and software, it’s largely run by Intel, suggesting that interoperability may not be a key goal.

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Other organizations, like the Open Geospatial Consortium and the Open AR Cloud Association, are promoting interoperability in geopose and the AR Cloud respectively. However, the view of the future that has been discussed in this article and that futurists often promote requires interoperability of applications across hardware providers, 5G networks, cloud services, and more.

While there are some market incentives to join organizations like the OARCA, most of its members are more driven by their benevolent dedication to an open future. Others have pointed out that there are strong market incentives towards promoting market competition and winning rather than trusting other organizations to create a universal digital world.

That’s 5G in a Nutshell

It seems crazy to think that radio waves could allow us to see information through AR and MR headsets. However, that’s exactly the future that 5G internet is leading us to. While it already exists, there are still a number of obstacles that must be overcome before most of us can use it – and even more before we can use it well.

Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.