I was at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it) with RS a couple of weeks ago, and as you would expect there was a lot of exciting tech, flashing lights and huge stands. To say that this place is big and bold is an understatement. Until you try and walk around the 8 hangers and 2.5 million square feet of space for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate the overwhelming scale of it.
Admittedly I didn’t get a chance to see everything, but I wanted to share my thoughts around some of the cool stuff, technology trends and best experiences of the show.
Apart from the large presence of mobiles and consumer gadgets, which were a lot of fun, there is a huge amount of focus on mobile technology for industrial and business application. Here are what I considered to be the top 5 topics at the show:
- NB-IoT (Narrow Band Internet of Things)
- Connected cars
- 5G wireless networks
- AI and digital assistants
- Augmented reality for industry 4.0
I’ll talk about all of them in a bit more detail. But it’s important to realise that these technologies don’t sit by themselves, there is a huge cross over in how these technologies will come together to solve future technology problems.
1. NB-IoT (Narrow Band – Internet of Things)
NB-IoT are super low power devices that use a type of narrowband radio communication sitting on a specially designed low power wide area network. The net result of this are devices that can last up to 10 years on a single battery charge. This enables devices that can be an order of magnitude smaller, be used in hard to access places that can’t often be maintained and create opportunities for new types of applications that were not previously possible.
One example I saw was scientists who wanted to be able to track animal’s migration patterns to help them better understand how they can be protected and where they faced their biggest dangers, the devices are now small enough and last long enough that they can be attached to the animals in a safe way, and last long enough to give meaningful tracking results.
2. Connected smart cars
MWC was once the domain of mobile phones, that’s certainly not the case anymore. Connected smart cars (and cities) had a strong presence at MWC. The most surprising and unlikely company to show the best technology in this area was Peugeot. They brought along a truly stunning concept car (a family saloon, albeit a saloon that outclassed most of today’s sports cars in design) with a raft of digital features and an assistant that gives Knight Rider a run for its money. In-fact that’s probably a good analogy, as this car has the ability to drive itself, talk to you, help you with things you want to be able to do in the car, has a fold away steering wheel and pedals for maximising room, it can even detect your emotions. I wonder if the assistant is called KITT?
3. 5G wireless
5G is the next generation radio standard for mobile and wireless networks. The future requirements of the connected world cannot be supported by our current 4G standards, 5G brings about some important advances,
- It is faster, offering up to 10GB gbps throughput. I saw a demo of a wireless virtual reality demo through-putting 8K video signal and low latency tracking. This would only be possible with 5G.
- 1 million devices can be connected per square KM (hundreds of times more than 4G). We have all seen how data transmissions can get jammed at stadiums and concerts where too many people are using wireless devices at the same time. This problem will be thing of the past.
- The latency of the network goes from 50ms down to 1ms. This is important for real-time applications, such as car telemetry, that needs to make split second decisions based on data processing coming from the cloud. Or for motion tracking of humans in VR spaces.
- Network slicing. Network slicing allows a single physical network to be virtualised in to mini networks that for all intents and purposes act stand-alone networks. They can all be configured with different characteristics, which greatly simplifies the creation and deployment of complex networked systems.
Consumer roll out isn’t expected until 2020, but RnD and adoption within the industry is going on now.
4. AI and digital assistants
Although it was mobile phone assistants that first popularised the use of talking digital assistants, we now have the next batch of consumer driven AI assistants with things like Amazon Echo (Alexa), google home and the newly announced Clova from Line (Japan).
Lots of other industries are looking at how AI assistants can help deliver a better experience to the customer by helping them connect the information they need in an easier and more natural way. That’s also true with us here at RS, we see big opportunities around that space, it’s going to revolutionise so many industries and that was reflected at MWC with these platforms being more present than ever before.
I saw a really cool technology demo from IBM Watson of a futuristic smart building, where you can walk around the whole building (in virtual reality space), and have natural voice assistance at any moment. Through voice input and augmented reality, all the directions, calendar entries, people you need to meet, rooms you need to go to, is all handled for you. It was a superb demo and an indication of how buildings will be managed in the future.
5. Augmented reality for industry 4.0
Another area that is dear to our hearts here at RS is augmented reality for industry 4.0. Our interests were certainly validated by the excellent pioneering work shown off at the MWC. Automation and control, predictive maintenance, obsolescence management, product training and system diagnostics are all areas that will be (and are) transformed through the application of AR technology.
I saw a simple demo from Nokia showing of a combination of NB-IoT monitoring devices attached to a physical engineering system, communicating over a 5G network and controlled and monitored through an augmented reality interface. Simply by holding up a tablet and looking at the physical system, you could monitor the system, check its stats and control its operation. It was a beautiful concerto of technologies coming together to make the way we interface with our environment so much easier than ever before.
Virtual reality surgery instrument for medical training
OK, now it’s time for the coolest thing I saw while I was at MWC. It came from FundamentalVR and it was a medical training simulator for administering injections in a surgery situation.
Warning, it’s not for the faint hearted!
So I put on the virtual reality mask and was transported into a hospital surgery situation, and I was the doctor. What I saw was a virtual leg, cut open, revealing the bone, muscle and soft tissue. I could control the virtual syringe by way of a robotic arm (that I held in my hand in real space). As I moved the robotic arm the virtual syringe that I could see in my VR world moved accordingly. As I press the virtual needle in to the soft tissue, the resistance and haptic feedback from the motors would push against me, creating (and I’m not exaggerating) a life like feeling, of a needle popping through skin and pushing into the soft tissue. Finally if the needle hit the bone, the robotic arm would completely resist any motion of me trying to push the needle further in, as you would expect in real life.
Pictures don’t do this experience justice. AR and VR are changing the way we learn, changing the way we interact with our environment and changing the way we interface with data. Once you see and experience its power there is no going back. You realise that these technologies are disruptive, they are game changing and they are going to be integrated into our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine right now.