My mother-in-law is used to seeing me always carrying a new gadget. She was there when I strapped on my first smartwatch in 2013, and she's seen me excitedly try out new camera lenses that attach to my phone.
But it was different the time I first showed her a virtual reality headset. After she cautiously strapped the $199 Oculus Go on her head, the screen in front of her eyes lit up, transporting her to my living room floor in San Francisco. She moved her head and could see the sofa behind her, some art on the walls and toys scattered on the floor.
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Then she saw my wife holding out her arms as our son took his first steps toward her. My mother-in-law, awestruck, instinctively reached out with her hand but she remained stuck in place, unable to move closer. That was as real as the headset could get.
But with 5G, she won't just be able to move her head closer to get a better view of her next grandchild's first steps, she may be able to walk along side him too.
This is one of the more dramatic examples of the types of technologies coming to the gaming and entertainment world in the next few years. Other innovations, like cloud streaming games filled with more-immersive and -detailed worlds, may become more widely used as well.
Much of these advances are tied to new superfast 5G wireless technology, which promises internet connections as much as 100 times speedier than what our smartphones get today. It's also more reliable and responsive, thanks to lower latency, a term to describe the lag time for data to go from a handset to a cell tower, then the internet, and back again. 5G promises to reduce latency from 20 milliseconds today to as little as 1 millisecond with 5G, or about the time it takes for a flash of a camera. Between those two changes alone, you could potentially download an entire television series from the internet in seconds.
5G won't just change the way we watch TV though. Within a few years, it's expected to do things like allow doctors to perform surgeries by controlling a robot from thousands of miles away. 5G is also expected to boost technologies like self-driving cars, which need to not only sense the world around them, but also communicate with each other and internet networks to trace their route and identify any hazards along the way.
And in entertainment, VR companies such as Facebook's Oculus division and game developers such as Microsoft say they're experimenting with creating bigger worlds, full of details that would be too visually taxing for today's devices to display.
"It's about unlocking all that potential," said Marija Radulovic-Nastic, senior vice president of development technology and services at game maker Electronic Arts. "We envision the future where games offer immersive experiences, where they offer living, breathing worlds — worlds that feel dynamic and personalized."
5G could make that kind of interactive entertainment commonplace, regardless of the device you're using. It would improve a technology called cloud gaming, which allows people to play games on a superpowerful server, streamed to their home like we watch Netflix, and HBO Max and Disney Plus today. In time, people may not need a large, heavy video game console plugged in to their TV to power their games and VR headsets. Instead, gamers will be able to effectively rent powerful computers from the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia and Amazon.
The types of games EA makes could change as a result of this technology too, Radulovic-Nastic said, relying on the processing power from cloud providers to do everything from creating smarter artificial intelligence bad guys to fight against, to more-lush locales for players to explore.
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In the cloud
Today, though, the world of gaming is a mess.
Take 2018's Red Dead Redemption 2, by Rockstar Games. Set in 1899, the game's fictionalized Wild West-like world is filled with a stunning amount of detail. Birds, deer and rabbits look like they're alive as they fly, forage or scatter from predators. The way your character's clothing bounces as you clop along on your horse looks lifelike. You can even open a catalog to see richly detailed ads for clothes, guns and supplies your character can buy with loot he steals (or earns) in the game.
But how much detail you see depends on the type of video game device you use, and how powerful it is.
The game looks good enough on a standard Microsoft Xbox One or Sony PlayStation 4, both released in 2013 and sold today for $300 each. But the characters and animals come much more alive if you upgrade to the $400 PlayStation 4 Pro, which can, for instance, show sharper patterns, and stitching in people's clothes.
Upgrade to a $500 Xbox One X and you'll be able to make out individual blades of grass in the distance as you travel through the countryside. New technology being built into the as yet unpriced Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will likely make the game look even better when they're released later this year.
These details may seem minor to anyone aside from the most dedicated gamers, but they bring a degree of immersion that's unattainable unless you shell out more money for better hardware, be it through consoles or a PC.
Today, mobile gamers are locked out of the fun completely. The game isn't available on a flagship smartphone like Samsung's $949 Galaxy Note 10 or Apple's $999 iPhone 11 Pro, for example, whose relative power hasn't yet proved they're able to handle games with so much visual complexity.
But extreme immersion may be available soon anyway, through cloud gaming. Game makers say the speed 5G promises, combined with lower costs for server technology, are coming together to create a gaming renaissance. As a result, you may be able to play games like Red Dead Redemption 2 nearly anywhere, and on nearly any device.
"It's enabling people to be even more mobile with their games," said Phil Eisler, a general manager at graphics-chip maker Nvidia who oversees its GeForce Now cloud gaming efforts.
Eisler's team, which offers cloud gaming technology to people for up to $4.99 per month, partnered with tech giant and cell phone maker LG U+ in South Korea last year to see how people in dense cities like Seoul might use the technology. It became so popular among some gamers, he said, they were playing while on their phone in the subways.
Like many other game makers and tech experts I spoke with, Eisler said reduced latency was the thing that excited him most. In his tests, he found the roundtrip of data from a gamer's device, through the internet to his company's computers and back again took about 10 milliseconds, roughly 1/10th the time with 4G.
"That's a game changer," he said.
Playing for fans
Many of the gee-whiz new things we may be able to do with 5G aren't actually new. Self-driving cars have been in testing for decades. So have robot surgeries. Tech enthusiasts experimented with virtual reality headsets for decades, and Nintendo even tried to sell one for a short time in 1995. Now, VR headsets such as the Oculus device my mother-in-law tried will likely benefit from faster connections offered by 5G.
Bleeding-edge technology like augmented reality, which overlays computer images on the real world, is expected to get a boost from 5G too. Microsoft and Magic Leap sell such headsets for more than $2,200. Within the next year, Apple's expected to announce one it's developed as well.
"It's enabling people to be even more mobile with their games." Phil Eisler, Nvidia
Just like all these other old technologies made new again, the idea of cloud gaming has been around since at least 2010, when startups OnLive and Gaikai proved the technology worked.
A decade later, those two have been swallowed by Sony, whose PlayStation Now is one of the most high-profile cloud gaming services out there, offering more than 800 games for $10 per month. Google offers you a free cloud gaming service called Stadia if you buy a game through the company. It also charges $10 per month for a few free games a month and better quality streams.
Nvidia's GeForce Now, meanwhile, is free to use for one hour, and effectively unlimited if you pay. But you have to already own the games, purchased through online retailers such as Valve's Steam online store.
Then there's Microsoft, which has been publicly testing its Project xCloud game streaming service since last October. The company will begin offering it as a free part of its Xbox Games Pass Ultimate service this September, giving Xbox fans already paying $15 per month access to streaming technology for hundreds of games.
5G will likely speed up cloud gaming's adoption, too.
Microsoft said most of the "hundreds of thousands of people" who've tested its service since October play over a Wi-Fi connection. 4G wireless would typically struggle to meet speeds needed to play.
The only thing that seems to stop people playing through cloud gaming is when they get back in front of their console at home, and switch to a bigger screen.
"It's not the primary way most of our customers play," said Microsoft's Xbox head, Phil Spencer. "It's a convenience feature."
But, he added, Microsoft has more plans for its xCloud service than merely to play games through its subscription service. "There will be a plan," he said. "Over time, we want you to be able to stream all the games that you want."
Both AT&T and Verizon, which with T-Mobile comprise the largest cell providers in the US, are experimenting with what new technologies may spring out of 5G, pushing their networks to the limit.
In the mid-2000s, 3G brought music downloads and photo text messages. Then 4G LTE brought streaming videos, music and Uber. The speed gains from 5G open the door to even more new services, with many people betting gaming will be one of the first to benefit.
"At the beginning of that journey, people didn't know those things were on the horizon," said Jay Cary, AT&T's head of 5G marketing and development. "It's not just about the network, it's about delivering what people want."
At Verizon's research labs, that search to find what's next has led to experiments with streaming detailed images of dinosaurs over 5G and into a headset, just to see what happens.
In practical terms, it could mean that within a decade, we may be wearing glasses that give us directions to the items on our shopping list while we weave through the grocery store.
The result could lead people to regularly stream so much data to their devices, it'll be like they're watching superhigh-definition movies all the time. "This will come down to 5G getting to scale," said T.J. Vitolo, director for AR and VR development at Verizon.
But once 5G becomes the norm, Vitolo believes, tech companies will create a new level of immersion through technologies such as volumetric video. The video created with that technology uses multiple cameras at different angles, sending massive amounts of data over the internet, which ultimately allows you as the viewer to go nearly anywhere the cameras can see.
For example, instead of watching a football game on TV, he said, VR could plop you into the best seat on the sidelines, next to the coach or right where all the players are. "Imagine being able to be anywhere in the stadium — you can even be the football," he said.
It also means that when it's time for my son or daughter to maybe one day take a VR video of their children's first steps, I'll be able to put on a headset and watch as they move, and then join in the celebratory hug after.
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