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[5G Future] 5G opens the door to a VR world of possibilities

From shopping to socializing, virtually anything is possible
May 13,2019
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From left to right are services available on 5G; KT showcases its video-call app Narle; Hyundai Department Store’s virtual shopping experience at a Nike store; LG U+ demonstrates virtual K-pop content. [KT, HYUNDAI DEPARTMENT STORE, LG U+]
Phones used to be nothing more than a way to place calls and send the occasional text message, but that all changed with the emergence of smartphones in the late-2000s. As the third- and fourth-generation networks were rolled out, phones became capable of searching the internet, checking emails, watching videos and even making videos.

Now the fifth-generation (5G) wireless network is here, as are promises of a revolution in how we use our phones. 5G, which could be up to 20 times faster than the current 4G LTE network, has the potential to revolutionize everything from cars and factories to entire cities as high-speed, low-latency connectivity changes how machines and infrastructure communicate.

This series - 5G Future - will take a look into a future shaped by 5G, the steps Korea has already taken to make it a reality and the considerable hurdles it still faces.


Imagine sitting down at a restaurant with a group of friends. While talking to them, you just realize that you forgot to buy a pair of sneakers necessary for a hiking trip this weekend.

Before the 5G era, you would have had two options - leave your friends and head to a nearby department store or buy a pair online and hope you’re lucky enough that they fit. But there’s a third option: Using 5G, it will soon be possible to stay at the restaurant with your friends and also go shopping at the same time - in virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). Using the 360-degree images of your body already saved to your phone, you’ll be able to pick up those hiking shoes without having to worry that they may not fit.

As we’re still in the early days of 5G, the content offered by the three mobile operators in Korea - SK Telecom, KT, LG U+ - is still mostly limited to seamless video conferencing, streaming sports games in what they describe as super-high quality and interactive videos featuring the biggest names in K-pop.

Yet industry insiders promise so much more, from virtual shopping to new ways to socialize without leaving home.

Although more than a 1,000 early adopters have already dropped their 5G subscriptions, primarily due to unstable handoffs when shifting between 4G and 5G, a total of 260,000 people signed up for the new network last month.

To attract more people to the fledgling service, the mobile carriers are investing heavily in various pieces of content they say will deliver the entertainment experience of the future.



Entertainment

Imagine dancing next to popular solo singer Chungha or dating singer-turned-actor Cha Eun-woo from Astro in a virtual world in real time. Although admittedly they might not be to everyone’s taste, those experiences are already available on 5G.

But mobile operators say that the network will one day offer much more useful and entertaining experiences.

SK Telecom, for instance, will live broadcast League of Legends (LOL) tournaments utilizing 5G technologies, at least until the end of next year. LOL, released by U.S.-based Riot Games, is one of the biggest games in professional gaming, with the world championship held annually around the world.

“Esports is one of the core areas of content for 5G,” said Yoo Young-sang, who leads SK Telecom’s mobile telecommunication division.

The mobile operator plans to provide a live VR experience for the audience of LOL Champions Korea, including video replays that can be seen in VR and meet-up events where fans can meet Esports players in VR or AR. Streaming the tournament and enjoying it in VR and AR without having to worry about lagging will also be possible.

SK Telecom will begin offering the service at the summer LOL Champions Korea tournament scheduled to begin in June.

KT on Friday announced it had signed a partnership with Smilegate Stove, a software developer that develops VR content. KT says the partnership will help it raise its competitiveness in the content industry. Smilegate Stove launched a VR game platform, Stove VR, in February.

LG U+ offers a VR streaming experience for webtoons and performances. It also offers an AR service that shows K-pop stars dancing with a 360-degree view. A virtual vacation that lets users go underwater and glimpse swimming seals is another option.

The carrier says it will unveil 15,000 unique pieces of VR and AR content by the end of this year, with a particular focus on performances by K-pop stars.

“Up until now, content revolved around a story, but the core focus will evolve into experiential content in the 5G era,” said Park Gi-su, a professor who teaches cultural content at Hanyang University. “But once people become used to consuming experiential content in VR or AR, the old story-centered media will return to blend with the experiential content.

“At this point, it’s not easy to forecast what kind of content will appear in the 5G era. We can only imagine what it will be like in the big picture.”

The prevalent use of 5G could also help K-pop stars build momentum overseas.

“The difference between K-pop artists and those overseas is that Korean stars interact a lot more with their fans, as seen with BTS,” said analyst Han Sang-woong from Eugene Research. “Up until now, only fans who could afford to pay for concert tickets were able to enjoy their performances abroad, but 5G will allow more fans from overseas to enjoy performances live in VR or AR and, therefore, give Korean celebrities a means to secure a bigger fandom via larger points of interaction.”

In terms of film, there will be a new categorization that defines both television series and movies, according to Chuck Chae, who won the Best Virtual Reality Experience Award for “Buddy VR,” an interactive VR film, at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

“From now on, using the word content instead of film or movie would be the right expression. Although they may have different formats or genres, their root or distribution method has equally become the computer,” said Chae.

In the 5G era, people using the internet will be able to watch the same content and, therefore, the emotional and cultural walls that were naturally built up among people of different nations will eventually collapse, according to Chae. “When that happens, the world will become a smaller place.”



Socializing and education

5G is also expected to transform how people socialize.

KT, for instance, offers a video-call service Narle. The app allows up to eight users to take part in a video call. Users are able to apply virtual makeup, add emoticons to their face and even use AR avatars.

SK Telecom will offer virtual sports lessons including golf and pilates. Taking a VR trip to exhibitions held at foreign galleries will also be possible.

At this point, the effort is on bringing the real world into the virtual world like in the movie “Ready Player One,” according to a spokesperson for SK Telecom.

“With 5G, people in the future will be able to create a community and interact in the virtual world. With the current technology, 5G users can watch baseball games or movies together in a virtual world, but are not yet able to do something together in that world. We’re developing that technology now.”

The primary focus of the development is virtual conference meetings. According to the SK Telecom spokesperson, live virtual conference meetings are more technically difficult than providing a space where users can watch a virtual movie because they require streaming content in 360 degrees. For that reason, virtual conferencing is still in the initial phase of development.

The information a smartphone can provide will also advance.

According to chip maker Qualcomm, 5G users in the future will be able to find a location just by scanning the surrounding area with their smartphones. The phone will immediately send the scanned images to the cloud and provide the user with the fastest way to get to their destination. If you’re looking for a restaurant, you will be able to see reviews of nearby diners that will pop up on the screen.

“Such services are not yet possible at the moment, and will be feasible only when AR and cross reality becomes commercialized,” said Karen Oh from Qualcomm Korea.

To alleviate security and privacy concerns, Oh explained that Qualcomm is aiming for an on-device cloud system, which will also make processing faster.



Shopping

5G is likely to speed up the retail industries shift from offline to online.

Some industry insiders believe offline stores will continue to matter - or at least high-end stores - thanks to VIP customers whose spending is generally said to account for more than half of department store sales. Department stores open special events just for their VIP customers, like giving them earlier access to new products before they hit shelves.

Yet others argue that the commercialization of 5G could be disruptive enough to cause the death of the majority of offline stores.

“When 5G use becomes prevalent, the era of ‘effortless shopping’ will arrive,” said Seo Yong-gu, a professor teaching business at Sookmyung Women’s University. “With faster data processing speeds and the development of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), people will be able to shop without suffering network latency or much physical effort.

“Any retailer who is able to adopt and commercialize 5G-based shopping could become the dominant retailer in the years ahead. Offline stores will lose their competitive advantage of allowing consumers to directly see or don clothes because people will be able to wear clothes without actually putting them on their body.”

Trying on clothes in AR will not stop at magic mirrors, which appear to dress a user’s reflection in a certain outfit to let them figuratively try before they buy. In the 5G era, people will be able to save 360-degree images of their bodies, and, therefore, will be able to actually see whether clothes fit in 3-D.

“People will be able to shop anytime, anywhere. This includes while eating at a restaurant,” said Seo.

Department stores are getting ready for the transformation.

Shinsegae I&C last month signed a memorandum of understanding with SK Telecom and SK Broadband to work together to create a smarter shopping experience using SK’s technological capabilities.

Shinsegae I&C is the group’s information technology business that offers ICT services to Shinsegae subsidiaries, including its department stores.

Some of the services available include virtual shopping and providing information about products through AR by scanning them on the screen of their mobile device. Allowing customers to make automatic payments by scanning their irises and giving customers suggestions on what to buy based on past purchasing records will also become possible.

Hyundai Department Store’s online mall currently offers a virtual shopping experience. By connecting with a VR device, shoppers can virtually enter physical shops and see the items on display. At this stage, shoppers have to leave the virtual world and visit the online mall in order to make a purchase.

“The technological development that will enable shoppers to directly make purchases in the virtual world is yet to be developed [by a separate firm],” said a spokesperson for Hyundai Department Store. “We’re not sure when we will be able to introduce such a service as the development seems to get delayed.”

A spokesperson for Lotte Department Store said the company has no specific plans to prepare for the 5G era.

“Alibaba realized a virtual shopping experience [for local consumers in China] to shop right in the middle of Manhattan,” said Prof. Park Jeong-eun, who teaches business at Ewha Women’s University.

In 2016, Alibaba launched a VR shopping platform named Buy+. It offers shoppers a 360-degree view using a VR device. Users can shop with two hand controllers and also make purchases in the virtual world. The platform, however, didn’t gain much momentum. Part of the reason was that VR shopping requires a superfast network with low latency - before 5G it just wasn’t practical.

“5G is able to realize graphics in real time and, therefore, can enable VR and AR without latency.” Park added. “Such changes in people’s lifestyle would have eventually occurred even without 5G, but the latest network surely has contributed in accelerating the transformation.”

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]