This article is part of our February 2019 series about mobile. Click here for more.
Imagine it’s 2022, and you’re doing your weekly food shopping at the local supermarket. To save time, you hold up your phone, which highlights all the areas in the store where you can find the items on your list. Another filter lets you see where the best sales are.
This vision isn’t some marketer’s fever dream but a realistic possibility. That type of augmented reality overlay will be possible, in part, because of 5G, the latest and fastest wireless network. Launched at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, 5G is being rolled out this year in the U.S. in select cities by AT&T and Verizon (with T-Mobile and Sprint to follow suit). By 2020 it is expected to be a mainstream technology, and, by 2023, a billion people are forecasted to have access.
Why is 5G such a big deal? Consider the jump from 3G to 4G, starting in 2010. The extra bandwidth provided by 4G spurred everything from mobile video to Uber. 5G—with speeds up to 20 times faster than 4G, could offer a similar quantum leap. And this time around, it’s developing alongside continuing advances in artificial intelligence, the worldwide rollout of IoT devices, and the evolution of virtual and augmented reality.
While the exact types of new applications that 5G will spur remain to be seen, experts in the technology have identified the following four use cases where it can enable the world of what’s possible.
1. Augmented Reality Helps Location-Based Services Get Smarter
Edge computing—real-time data processing physically close to where data is collected—may not be on most marketers’ radar. But such enhanced computing power will allow for robust mobile experiences that we can’t imagine today.
“[Edge computing] would make information come alive in the real world in a way that’s much higher quality, more immediate, and much more relevant to the user,” said Sherif Hanna, director of product marketing at Qualcomm.
The most vivid example involves AR. Thanks to edge computing, Hanna said, a 5G-enabled smartphone would become a “viewfinder for the world.” (We get glimpses of this reality with Google Lens, which uses the phone’s camera to summon relevant information using visual analysis.) For instance, today if a consumer is hungry, she might grab her phone and perform a search to locate the best local restaurants. But with 5G, she’d be able to hold up her phone and see an annotated vision of all the nearby eateries.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because in 2009 Yelp rolled out Monocle, an app that uses AR to do so. But the early incarnations—on 4G—were buggy, and although it’s still offered, few people use it. Matt Geddie, Yelp’s product manager, told The Houston Chronicle last year that he thought the feature would be more useful with a head’s up display. He’s not the only one. Qualcomm’s Hanna also thinks that smart glasses might get a reboot in the 5G era.
Edge computing, combined with 5G and AI, also means that location-based marketing will get a lot smarter. We’ve all heard the scenario in which a consumer of the future, while driving home, gets a notification from her smart refrigerator that she’s out of milk and should stop at the store coming up in a half-mile.
That vision depends on a combination of IoT, AI, and robust location-based services. Because of edge computing and a high-bandwidth 5G connection, the “don’t forget the milk” example is not far-fetched, said Julie Coppernoll, VP of marketing, client computing, and 5G at Intel.
Improvements in speed, computing power, and costs will “really open up location services to marketers in a different way,” Coppernoll told CMO.com.
2. VR Goes Mobile
VR has yet to fulfill expectations. One reason might be that VR devices are home-based rather than mobile. But 5G will offer the bandwidth and low latency—the lag between when a user requests something and sees it on the device—required for mobile VR experiences.
“With AR/VR, even a half-second delay can be literally nauseating if you turn your head and the streamed image on your goggles or headset is struggling to keep up,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business. “If you’re going to run AR/VR apps in the cloud, latency rates must be low enough so that your physical movements sync with what your eyes are seeing.”
While many think of VR as a vehicle for gaming, robust wireless bandwidth will mean that consumers can also “attend” sporting events and concerts via their VR headsets. Already, Live Nation and NextVR have broadcast concerts from Slash & Friends and Little Steven, among other acts, in VR.
For advertisers, the latency issue is important because it will allow for advertising in VR and AR. 4G’s latency runs up to 60 milliseconds, which can trip up such ads, but 5G has trimmed that figure down to about four milliseconds.
3. Mobile Video Gets Better And More Ubiquitous
Even before 5G, mobile video was a quickly growing category. This year, people around the world are expected to watch 25% more mobile video than they did last year, according to media measurement firm Zenith. But some 60% of video viewing still occurs at home, via a fixed line broadband connection.
With its low latency, 5G will offer a better video-viewing experience on any device. It also means consumers will no longer need a fixed-line broadband connection—via cable or DSL—in their homes. Instead, they can use the same 5G connection that they use for their mobile devices. This is where Verizon and others are focusing their first 5G applications, according to Mark Hung, a research VP at Gartner.
“In many places in the U.S., there isn’t that much competition for local broadband,” he told CMO.com. “If 5G is able to create more competition in that space, then that could lead to more cord-cutters.”
5G might also swing the pendulum from streaming to downloading once again. That's because it only takes a few seconds to download an HD movie on 5G versus a few minutes today on 4G. That, in turn, could lead to opportunities to sponsor downloads or include ads in downloadable content, Coppernoll said.
“I think we’ll see all of the above and all different kinds of models to monetize content,” she told CMO.com.
AT&T Business’ Katibeh added that video will become more ubiquitous. A financial services firm, for instance, could “transform the ATM into a full-service branch powered by videoconferencing over a 5G fixed wireless connection,” he said.
4. IoT Comes Into Its Own
It stands to reason that 5G’s robust connectivity will likely be a boon to IoT as well. And as IoT devices become more common, marketers will have access to new sources of data about consumers’ habits that they can use for more personalized messaging.
Occasions for “contextual commerce”—opportunities to purchase items in new settings—will also multiply, courtesy of 5G. For example, Mastercard and Visa are working with carmakers to provide electronic payments for smart vehicles.
“The latency possible with 5G can create a network that makes near-real-time connections possible,” Katibeh said. “This enables the handling and management of the upcoming massive IoT explosion and will bring new opportunities for technology like smart grids, connected cars, homes and cities, connected health, and more.”
In a more roundabout way, 5G-fueled IoT will help brands offer better experiences for consumers. Katibeh pointed to an example of an elevator company that uses an integrated AR and IoT solution to quickly fix its elevators when something goes wrong. “What does this mean? An improved customer experience,” he said.
The greatest cause for disruption is the next wave of apps that we can’t yet imagine. Recall that 4G allowed for the app economy that we know today, which has spawned the mobile-focused media ecosystem. 5G will allow for much more experimentation with new consumer experiences.
“It’s not that you can’t do a lot of these things today,” Coppernoll said. But with 5G, the possibilities are that much greater.
Note: This article originally ran on CMO.com on May 17, 2018.