5G will bring science fiction to life

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 12, 2019 - August 18, 2019.
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The world has witnessed a technological sea change in the last five years, with an array of seemingly disparate concepts and ideas leaping off research papers and into mainstream appeal.

Once people got used to the concept of cloud computing, a host of other technologies quickly followed. For a start, the mainstream acceptance of cloud computing and cloud storage meant that devices were no longer tethered to physical storage and processing capabilities.

But being able to connect to Google’s host of services, launching Instagram on a device or even managing one’s entire net worth on a smartphone require a seamless, well-connected information superhighway. Today’s array of social media and e-commerce giants have gained both global appeal and notoriety because of the global telecommunication standards in place.

In layman’s terms, these telecommunication standards are referred to as GSM, 2G (second generation), 3G and, now, 4G LTE (long-term evolution). It is no coincidence that the slew of technological marvels in recent years have advanced alongside these standards.

Thanks to these advancements on the so-called information superhighway, the Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0 and machine learning — as well as the broader artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and applications — began jostling for position. To varying degrees, these technologies found residency on retail and industrial devices throughout the world.

So, as countless new applications and use cases continue to be discovered and perfected, the resultant demands on processing power and connectivity speeds are increasing. It is not that these technologies have reached their zenith, in the way that the internal combustion engine has, for example. Rather, the information superhighway needs a major upgrade.

 

A 5G future

Over the last two years, it has become increasingly apparent that 5G communications technology will carry on wherever the 4G LTE standard leaves off. Simply put, the fifth generation of mobile network technology is the successor to the current standard.

Typical mobile activities that now require buffering on 4G mobile networks will be instantaneous. But 5G will offer much more than just unprecedented connectivity speeds. With it comes increased processing ability, reliability and very low latency meant to support a host of key services throughout an economy.

According to Fusionex vice-president of new technologies Raju Chellam, 5G will bring devices and data closer, quicker and with much less latency (the ability to process large amounts of data with minimal delay) than 4G. That means 5G will enable hundreds or even thousands of IoT devices to continuously send data to servers. Fusionex is a data technology provider that specialises in big data analytics, IoT and AI applications for businesses.

5G’s ultra-fast processing speeds will drastically alter the way some budding verticals operate by offering real-time solutions not currently possible in the prevailing 4G environment, says Raju. “Self-driving cars, for example, would need to monitor multiple variables such as road conditions, traffic congestion, signals, jaywalkers, weather, global positioning system, speed, acceleration and braking, roadworks as well as sharp turns, and take action almost instantaneously.

“All of this data has to be immediately analysed and acted upon. Only 5G is capable of maintaining the processing speeds required to handle such large volumes of data in real time.”

ST Liew, president of Taiwan and Southeast Asia, and vice-president at Qualcomm Technologies Inc, says 5G connectivity will take many of today’s already impressive digital experiences to an entirely new plane. It will have three major effects, he points out.

First, 5G connectivity will vastly enhance the mobile broadband experience, thus enabling an exponential increase in the number of connected devices throughout the environment. Second, it will significantly improve what is known as “mission critical communications”.

These include emergency responders, aircraft and marine communications, as well as critical systems and communications in power generation and other utilities. Under the current communications regimes, these services tend to receive additional bandwidth allocation as a priority, albeit at the expense of other non-critical communications and connectivity needs.

Third, the proliferation of IoT devices throughout a 5G connected environment will create a massive network of interconnected devices, meaning an exponential increase in big data collection and processing demands. This will give rise to huge economic and enterprise opportunities in the big data analytics space alone.

“But really, the 5G sphere of influence extends far beyond traditional smart devices. There will be major applications in industrial IoT. The direct and indirect economic impact of operating in a 5G environment will run into the tens of trillions of dollars,” Liew tells Enterprise.  

No matter when 5G adoption hits critical mass, he believes that the world will be much better equipped to harness its power than previous communications standards. “If you look at when 4G communications technology first went to market, there were just three or four operators in the world that had the networks up and running. There were also just a handful of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) making 4G-enabled products,” he says.

“But as at the first half of this year, there were more than 20 5G network operators in the world. They are either actively working on or already rolling out 5G networks in cities throughout the world. As for OEMs, there are now well over 20 brands testing and manufacturing 5G-enabled devices. There are at least 75 5G-enabled devices that I know of in the market right now.”

Under the present 4G environment, the connectivity benefits have been most prominent in consumer and enterprise devices. “We are very accustomed to 4G as a device-centric technology. But the range of products, components and services that will be produced under a 5G environment will be far and away more expansive than anything we have witnessed,” says Liew.

Under the 5G regime, advanced IoT sensors and components will gradually become viable and permanent features of the global economy, he adds.

Instantaneous communication between machines in a complex production line will be feasible. In a 5G world, IoT-connected factories could distil countless data points into a single virtual dashboard that could predict the entire floor’s maintenance needs.

“All the IoT-enabled machines will even make it possible for machines to detect internal changes and then, independently shut off and redirect production lines to other machines while it rings out a maintenance order,” says Liew.

Interestingly, Qualcomm appears to be exploring such a scenario. One of its strategies for operating in a 5G environment will be to get more value out of the individual components of a smartphone. A leading chipmaker for the smart devices market, the company is exploring the idea of creating entirely new devices from individual components of the classic smart device.

“We can use the individual camera module of a smartphone as an IoT sensor. By adding 5G connectivity to the component, we could turn it into an advanced, vision computing device. The speakers could become specialised listening devices, embedded into other 5G-enabled machines,” says Liew.

“The display element in a smartphone could be harnessed for other purposes. By simply adding the connectivity speeds of a 5G environment, each of these individual components in a smartphone could spawn new and exciting products and services.”  

 

The new, alternate reality

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 hit movie Minority Report is a science fiction classic. In it, there is a scene where Tom Cruise’s character — using what appears to be a pair of very advanced IoT-enabled gloves — brings up a virtual screen seemingly out of thin air. He then gesticulates his way through a series of crime scene photographs, expertly manipulating and scrolling through the pictures.

The scene was striking because until that point, no one had expressed that level of seamless human-computer interface on the silver screen. For the first time, audiences witnessed a world in which man and machine operated as a nearly indistinguishable unit, free from the shackles of physical processors, displays and other long-obsolete tools such as keyboards and mice.  

Just 12 years after the movie, Dr Andrew Yew presented as his doctoral thesis on an operating system designed for such a scenario. “My paper focuses on designing and developing an operating system for ubiquitous, augmented reality (AR) applications,” the National University of Singapore alumnus tells Enterprise. “What we want to do is render the computer, as we traditionally understand it, entirely invisible,” he adds.

True enough, this operating system does not reside on any one visible hardware or computing system. Rather, the circuitry and processors are embedded in a host of real-world objects, residing throughout real-world environments, says Yew. Whether in a room, shopping mall, public space or factory, this operating system integrates a host of once disparate technologies — IoT, Industry 4.0, big data analytics and AI — thus providing the user with an unprecedented, seamless and tailor-made computing experience.

“In traditional computing terms, a graphical user interface [that is, digital information expressed on a traditional display screen, whether on a desktop or smartphone] is what we are all used to. But what we have developed in the university media lab allows a user to interact with computer programmes using very natural physical actions. These include hand gestures, vision, voice recognition and even brain-computer interfacing,” says Yew.

“Quite simply, the operating system we have designed represents a cohesive, seamless way of interacting with computer applications that are displayed in AR within your physical environment.”

Yew is co-founder of a local “extended reality” start-up, Ministry XR. He founded the company with his cousin Ivan Khoo, a media and advertising veteran.

Another just as impressive use for Yew’s pioneering AR research is in the area of sports science. Medical research has discovered a link between alpha brain waves and a golfer’s ability to make accurate shots.

If a golfer is coached to control and stabilise his alpha brain waves, his putting accuracy increases significantly. By creating a human-brain interface, it would be possible to feed the athlete’s alpha waves back to him as a visual of some kind, says Yew.

For instance, the waves could be represented in the form of a glass of water. His alpha waves could then be synced to the laws of fluid dynamics, which govern the behaviour of water, Yew explains.

If the alpha waves are unstable, the water ripples and swishes about. This visual would be displayed on a screen or even the athlete’s own AR-enabled device. This way, the athlete can learn to calm his mind and stabilise his alpha waves, not by thinking about it in abstract terms but amazingly, by deeply focusing on the glass and gradually stabilising that body of water.

Yew and Khoo are excited about operating in a 5G-enabled environment. But for now, they are taking a pragmatic approach to its adoption. While waiting for 5G connectivity speeds, the roughly three-year-old company has found early success developing AR content for a slew of prominent brands.

Even with the relatively limited capabilities of current-generation smart devices and graphics software, these AR solutions are adding significant value to its growing list of clients, says Khoo. “One of our clients, Ford Malaysia, engaged us to develop a seamless, virtual reality (VR) demonstration of one of their pick-up trucks’ safety features. We ran these demonstrations through three simple VR headsets.

“We deployed the solution at a number of the client’s weekend roadshows. There were only two physical vehicles available for test driving, which if used continuously for test driving would only yield between 40 and 50 rides a day. With our three VR headsets, we successfully logged about 350 VR test drives over just two days.

“Throughout the month-long period, we managed to yield more than 1,400 VR test drives. What started as a four-weekend project with Ford stretched into six weeks. In fact, we are now developing a series of VR-enabled chairs to be placed in their showrooms. These chairs will be synced to the VR demonstration to add a real, physical experience alongside the VR simulation.”

 

Superfast semiconductors

But Ministry XR is not the only local company taking early steps into a 5G connected environment. Local semiconductor manufacturer SilTerra Malaysia Sdn Bhd is doing so as well.

Vice-president of strategic management Tan Eng Tong acknowledges the inevitability of such a future. But the fact is that the rollout will most likely occur in stages over a period of years, if not longer.

Tan believes that the early touchpoints of 5G connectivity will only apply to businesses and individuals operating at the very highest level of their respective industries. “Our current global economy is still trying to achieve full 4G penetration and the fact is that the majority of industries will be able to perform at a significantly higher level with just full 4G penetration,” he says.

“The networks that most industries operate on are for the most part still optimised for the current 4G environment. So, for the foreseeable future, these industries will not need 5G connectivity.”

Tan is concerned that 5G connectivity is receiving its moment in the spotlight because of sheer novelty. It is very exciting to read about hundredfold increases in connectivity speeds, of course. But right now, it is the technology that is fuelling interest, rather than real-world business cases. And because of this, many of the 5G-enabled products are being marketed because of the novelty more than anything else.

Having said that, SilTerra is by no means dismissing 5G technology. The company is actively working towards such a future by researching exotic materials and technologies. The idea is that these technologies could be pushed to market as pre-5G iterations.

“We know 5G connectivity is coming to Malaysia and the technology that will eventually support it is being used for other things in the meantime.  Once we build our capacities and capabilities in these new technologies, we will have a suitably strong foundation from which to launch into a 5G environment,” says Tan.

For example, semiconductor wafers are primarily silicon-based. The substance has proved to be an excellent foundation for the electronics we take for granted today. But chips have shrunk in size (and increased in power) for so long that now, the latest circuits are literally approaching the size of atoms, says Tan.

“Gallium nitride-based wafers are very promising. This is something we are focusing on because our research tells us that it is one of the substances with the potential to give us the next significant series of gains in processing power and compact sizing.

“For example, one of our clients specialises in manufacturing laptop power adaptors. Right now, these adaptors are the size of small bricks. But with gallium nitride circuitry, they could reduce the adaptors to just the size of an AA battery.

“What is more amazing is that, depending on the manufacturing process, we could be looking at between a 50% and 100% increase in energy efficiency from these next-generation power adaptors.”