5G technology promises so much more than just good cellular service. But what is it actually? And how will this emerging technology change our lives? 5G, quite simply, stands for the fifth generation of cellular technology. The first generation of cell tech was simply the ability to talk on a cell phone, the second generation brought us text messaging, 3G is where we finally saw apps and data, and 4G/LTE offers up the high-speed data we’re used to today. But 5G is set to blow all of that completely out of the water.
By creating a new 5G network that will eventually run on its own frequencies (current iterations hitch a ride on 4G frequencies), we’ll see a huge uptick in performance in three major areas: low latency, high speed, and increased points of connectivity. To see how each of these three performance upgrades will affect real-life consumers in the future, we’re taking a look at a few areas that will be directly impacted, and making some predictions on where we’re headed in the field.
By the time 5G is fully up and running we’ll be looking at download speeds anywhere from ten to one hundred times faster than 4G, according to Verizon. And while numbers like that are obviously important for downloading games significantly faster, the true revolution in gaming is going to come from the much lower latency of 5G. “When you send a signal to a network and it comes back, it comes back much quicker,” explains author and futurist Steve Brown (better known as The Bald Futurist). “So it’s a much more responsive network than 4G or anything before it. And that enables a whole new set of exciting applications for consumers.”
In the gaming sphere, Brown thinks the super-fast response time enabled by low latency will lead to a lot of the computing power of gaming systems elsewhere. “What you’re essentially doing there is pushing the console into the cloud,” Brown says. But it’s not just console gaming that’ll benefit from this “hardware in the cloud.”
Things start to get really interesting when high download speeds and lower latency are applied to virtual and augmented reality. Brown explains that we saw the very first examples of widespread augmented reality with that little monster-catching game that swept the world a few years back, but “it’s nothing compared to where it can be. Imagine the capabilities of today’s best video games overlaid onto physical reality. That’s, I think, where we’re headed with augmented reality supported by 5G computing power.”
And augmented reality will work its way into other spheres of our world, too. We’ve already seen rudimentary AR technology implemented in shopping experiences, but when we visited Verizon’s 5G Test Lab as part of our ongoing What’s Next In Tech series, we got a glimpse at just how impactful this tech could be in the consumer space.
Virtual reality will also greatly benefit from lower latency, as those faster response times allow us to push a lot of our computing needs onto the cloud. In VR terms, this computational heavy lifting usually done by hardware in virtual reality headsets could be removed entirely from the physical product, leading to much less expensive and lighter-weight equipment. This way, we’ll be saving ourselves from aching necks after extended gameplay sessions.
Another exciting benefit of 5G technology is its potential for very high scalability, meaning you could connect a lot of things to the network at once. Along with automated vehicles, which we’ll get to in a moment, this has a lot of implications in the smart and connected home. “For a very low cost, you’ll be able to add connectivity to anything in the house,” says Brown. Along with voice controls that could process our commands faster (and do more computational legwork in the cloud to figure out just what we mean), this connectivity could completely wirelessly connect your home, letting everything from your lightbulbs to your refrigerator and your heated floors all speak with one another in concert, without you even needing to say a word.
While it won’t be the sole contributing factor to an autonomous driving future, the low latency and high scalability of 5G will be essential in removing steering wheels from the equation. “In order for cars to be autonomous,” says Brown, “they have to be able to understand what’s happening on the road, talk to each other, and talk to the infrastructures like traffic signals.”
But here’s the part where we go “super future” on you. If we truly reach a fully autonomous driving experience, we’ll have to completely rethink the very fundamentals of what a “car” really is. “What will you do while you’re commuting?” Brown asks, “because you’re no longer driving. If you’re on a longer journey, you’re going to want to watch Netflix and you will rent yourself the Netflix car that will come and take you from A to B.”
Hungry? Brown imagines a future where you’ll be able to rent a dining car for your journey. Have a business meeting during your commute? Rent a video conference car with high-tech connectivity powered by 5G. By removing the passenger as an active participant in the actual driving of a car, it’ll completely break down the classic “four seats and a steering wheel” configuration we’re used to, “and 5G plays an important role in connecting all that capability.”
But with all this talk of video games, enhanced shopping experiences, connected homes, and rentable dining cars, what will our phones be like in this bold new future of 5G cellular technology? “Not much different than they are today,” says Brown. “They’ll just be better.” And because they’ll be connected at such a high speed, and with such low latency, they’ll feel much more powerful than they really are. “But the same way that the PC was superseded by the smartphone but is still used today,” says Brown, “the smartphone will not go away when the next thing comes along.”
Even though new technologies will emerge, it seems we’ve found a very handy, easy to use interface for accessing digital information through our smartphones. With high speed and low latency, we could end up with devices light on hardware but extremely fast and interactive. With devices that could pull up useful information faster than the blink of an eye, our phones could continue to see dominant use through the years. With all this in mind, it feels like we’re just seeing the tip of the 5G iceberg, and despite steps we still need to take in infrastructure building and public perception, the future of 5G seems truly revolutionary.
But why stop at 5G? Dig deeper into our What’s Next In Tech series with Best Buy for more looks into the future.
Giaco Furino is Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo