In just a handful of weeks the Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed the way most people – or at least, most office workers – do their jobs. In many of the countries affected by the novel coronavirus in Europe, employees were asked to work from home, as office life and collaboration shifted almost completely from face-to-face interaction to video calls, group messaging services and online collaborative tools.
“One thing that is super clear is that during the pandemic, some trends got accelerated,” says Lisa Elénius Taylor, head of portfolio marketing at Ericsson. “Some things have been sort of stress-tested now. People started wondering: ‘does this actually work? This great idea that we had of how we thought things were going evolve – is that really what we see?”
The conversation about present circumstances inevitably posed some key questions about how the way we work will change and improve over the next few years. Technology and the quality of internet connectivity – not only in offices but in every single employee’s home – have become vital for businesses. And the adoption of 5G, the new superfast, low-latency, high security technology standard for cellular networks, has suddenly gained incredible urgency.
“The pandemic has shed a bit of light on the digital divide that exists in a lot of countries. Even in the US or in the UK, if you were to compare the status of home broadband in big cities versus rural areas, there is a huge difference in both the availability of reliable broadband and satisfaction with quality of service,” says head of Ericsson ConsumerLab Jasmeet Sethi. Plugging that gap just by installing more fibre is not always feasible, nor quick enough.
“Thus, 5G is a very important piece of the puzzle in order to bridge that digital divide. With 5G – especially with 5G fixed wireless access and enough spectrum availability – you have a good alternative to reliable home wireless broadband, at least for markets where there is lack of availability of fibre,” Sethi adds.
But 5G’s high-speed, high-security properties wouldn’t simply be opportune for navigating the current crisis – during which, as Taylor puts it, “even big companies are relying on people’s own Wi-Fi to function”, and where a security pitfall in someone’s home internet set-up might reverberate across the whole organisation. 5G is about moving on and reinventing the way we think about work. It is about embracing flexibility at every level – from startups to multinational corporations. For instance, physical presence might end up being a thing of the past, replaced by XR – or extended reality – in essence, a solution that combines virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.
“We [at Ericsson] are bullish about XR as a remote workspace solution. And for XR to be successful, you need a lot of moving pieces and 5G is one of them, together with edge computing and cloud,” Sethi says. “There are a lot of things that need to happen for that. The biggest challenge is on the device side: you would not expect yourself to be wearing a half-kilo headset and working for an hour in virtual reality. We need to move towards more miniaturised XR viewers. So, imagine glasses that would just weigh 100 grams, and are connected to your 5G smartphone.”
What would this feel like? In a word: “presence” – feeling like we are in the same room as our colleagues, even if each of us is actually working from home. In addition, that experience would have immediacy: immersion in the situation would be complete, thanks to the minimal delay in response towards your – or your colleagues’ – actions.
“What 5G could do is take away the cost of presence. We could have the feeling of us almost being there together thanks to VR, AR and XR,” Taylor says. In addition, the virtual environment might be reinterpreted as a canvas for creative collaboration.
“We can bring virtual collaboration and remote expertise to a central location using 5G technology,” explains Peter Marshall strategic marketing manager at Ericsson. “If you think about construction, for example, you want builders to work collectively together, looking at the kind of shapes and sizes and materials of a building, that’s also equally possible.”
“You could have a virtual CAD [computer-aided design] drawing on a central server cascaded to many people around the world, where they could collectively collaborate on something which kind of exists, but doesn’t exist – and it’s not a PowerPoint presentation.”
In other contexts – such as manufacturing – 5G would be crucial in creating “digital twins” in a factory to be used for simulating different scenarios. In education, 5G-aided XR might usher in a new era of homeschooling that keeps young pupils enthralled and aids their learning through stunning visuals. In sectors like medicine, the visual element might be compounded with other kinds of inputs, such as tactile (or “haptic”) sensations.
“Touch is an important factor, but it very much depends on the situation,” Marshall says. “For instance, look at jet engine training. A jet engine is a very expensive resource. What you can do is replicate that jet engine in a controlled virtual environment where you could disassemble it and assemble it using both tactile and virtual reality solutions, giving you the ability to feel how much tension you are applying through a spanner and the weight of a component in your hand.”
“Based on that approach, you could have engineers from around the world collectively disassemble and assemble a jet engine, with central support.”
–For more information, visit ericsson.com/5g