Is augmented reality a game changer for mobile networks?

Consumer, Executive Briefing Service

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Consumers and employees are beginning to adopt wearable devices that can live stream video to image recognition systems and expert advisors. Over time, these devices will place new demands on cellular networks.

The current state of augmented reality

To date, consumers have made very limited use of augmented reality, partly because handsets are not well suited to this application and partly because wearable devices, such as glasses and ear pieces, have too many drawbacks. Smart glasses tend to be bulky, have a short battery life and can be expensive, while ear pieces have limited functionality. As a new wave of lighter and more capable devices are rolled out, this report will consider how quickly augmented reality (supported by AI) will gain traction and the implications for telcos.

There is a growing consensus that the smartphone is not the best vehicle through which to access artificial intelligence services, such as ChatGPT. To retrieve information and request advice on the move, people could benefit from a more convenient and intuitive device that is aware of what they are looking at and can easily hear what they are saying. A handset that sits in a pocket or a handbag is unable to fulfil that role.

Indeed, it seems likely that the ongoing advances in AI will finally fuel broader adoption of augmented reality services, which provide users with digital information about their immediate surroundings. AI should be able to make augmented reality more compelling as improvements in image recognition enable an app to immediately recognise what the user is looking at and then (by learning from past interactions) quickly deduce the information they need. In September 2023, for example, OpenAI announced that ChatGPT can now respond to pictures, as well as text prompts for conversations with the AI chatbot.

In short, it is likely that augmented reality and AI will have a symbiotic relationship, in which the two technologies fuel each other’s growth. From a telco perspective, this symbiosis is important because augmented reality and live video streaming are among the few applications that could drive a step change in cellular traffic in outdoor environments. Adoption of these applications could be fuelled by the growing selection of wearable devices, equipped with cameras and other sensors, speakers and microphones, which make it easier for consumers and business people to access information about the world around them.

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AR and AI will have a symbiotic relationship

Source: STL Partners

In this report, we define augmented reality as a service that uses a digital connection to provide the user either with information about their immediate surroundings or enhances or embellishes their view of the real world with digital graphics and labels. In some cases, this information could be as simple as an audio instruction or a digital arrow indicating where to turn left. In other cases, it could be the projection of a high-resolution video. If the application is using low latency connectivity, the digital objects could change their position in line with changes in the user’s viewing position or changes in the real world.

In any case, many augmented reality applications will not involve a screen at all. The user may simply receive an audio feed that describes what they are looking at or provides them with helpful advice, such as there are no trains operating from that station or this shop closes in 10 minutes. Some of these use cases could, for example, be facilitated by a combination of body cameras and headsets (with microphones and ear pieces) or connected glasses that lack a screen, such as the new Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses. Indeed, the most convenient devices may often be connected glasses equipped with cameras, microphones and speakers, as they will enable the wearer to simply look at something and then ask a question.

It seems likely that Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Apple and other leading device makers will roll out their own versions of the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses – headwear with a camera (but no display) and optimised for audio-enabled AI/augmented reality use cases.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Major implications for telcos’ uplinks
  • Introduction
  • New kinds of wearable devices
    • Connected glasses without a display
    • Connected glasses with displays
    • Body cameras
    • Wearable displays
    • Ear buds with a built-in microphone
    • Glasses with a built-in speaker and microphone
    • Smart watches
  • AR and live streaming use cases
    • Enhancing the safety of public-facing staff
    • Providing support to staff in the field
    • Identifying or classifying people
    • Live streaming for training/education
    • Information about your surroundings
    • Customised in-person shopping
    • Outdoor gaming
    • See what I see communications
    • Filming activities
    • Live streaming to social media
  • Conclusion
    • Implications for telcos
    • Recommendations
  • Index

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David Pringle

David Pringle

David Pringle

Senior Associate Analyst

David Pringle is a Senior Associate Analyst at STL Partners, specialising within our Consumer Services research stream. He spent five years as the European tech and telecoms correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and provides editorial and analytical services to a range of organisations in the tech, media and telecoms industries, as well moderating panel discussions at industry conferences, webinars and on Mobile World Live TV. David has a BA in English and Politics from York University.