Why Virtual Reality Could Be Better With a Mobile Data Connection

Taking the metaverse on the road

  • A predicted upcoming wave of 5G-connected VR devices could bring the metaverse on the road. 
  • If you want high-speed data while using VR on the go, your best option is to use a Wi-Fi hotspot. 
  • Researchers are developing a robot for combat medicine controlled using a 5G-connected VR headset.
Someone using virtual reality glasses at night in a well lit location.

Weiquan Lin / Getty Images

You might soon be able to take your virtual reality (VR) headset on the road with a built-in high-speed data connection. 

A new report says 30 percent of augmented reality products and 23 percent of VR shipments will include cellular connectivity by 2027. Major VR headset makers don't currently offer built-in high-speed 5G connections, but once they do, it could make a big difference in how you use the device and even help wounded soldiers on the battlefield. 

"The future of VR isn't going to be restricted to living rooms or offices," Danny Parks, the vice president of technology for mixed reality agency Trigger XR, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It will be wherever people are. And mobile data is going to be a critical piece in connecting the physical world with digital spaces and virtual worlds."

Faster Mobile VR

Most current VR headsets get their data from a local Wi-Fi hotspot or through the computer they are tethered to via a connecting cable. The lack of high-speed mobile options for VR may be for a reason.

"5G absolutely plays a key role in AR and VR, but it is time and use case dependent," Eric Abbruzzese, the research director at ABI Research, the company which authored the mobile data report, said in the news release. "Today, most use cases do not require the latency and bandwidth improvements that come with 5G. However, push connectivity needs to match more users in more places, consuming more types of content over time."

The future of VR isn't going to be restricted to living rooms or offices. It will be wherever people are.

If you want to use a VR headset while on the go, the best current option for most people is to use a cellular hotspot current, T.J. Vitolo, a mobile product executive for the telecommunications company Verizon, told Lifewire in an email interview. "However, those place a Wi-Fi network in between the device and the 5G network. Verizon is currently working on solutions to provide direct 5G network access to VR devices."

But Vitolo predicted that once 5G becomes widely available for headsets, it could make a big difference for users. He said the attributes of 5G, beyond mobility, make it substantially better than most indoor wireless networks, including Wi-Fi.

"Extremely low latency, ultra-high bandwidth, and support for a substantial number of concurrent connections make 5G the best network choice for VR," he added. "In instances where running multiple devices in one location is critical, like group training or entertainment scenarios, 5G provides greater scale and performance."

The Future of Mobile VR

For soldiers, high-speed data and VR could be a life-saving combination. Researchers in Britain are developing a medical triage robot controlled remotely by a medic using a VR headset. Camera data could be sent to the medic using a 5G or other high-speed data connection. 

Currently, casualties in combat are attended to by a medical technician rather than a doctor. On the battlefield, the equipment and facilities available are limited before patients can be moved safely to a more advanced medical facility—which can take hours or even days.

Three medical personnel, two wearing VR headsets.

12963734 / Getty Images

"Developing a remotely-operated robotic system would significantly improve safety by reducing the amount of danger military personnel are exposed to on the frontline," the project's leader, Sanja Dogramadzi from the University of Sheffield's Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, said in the news release. "Our platform uses the latest technology and would integrate it in a way that hasn't been done before."

Civilians may get 5G connectivity for VR soon. Earlier this year, Verizon announced it's working with radio providers to build companion 5G devices for high mobility devices (HMDs), including VR headsets.  

"These devices provide all of the benefits of a 5G network to an HMD by physically connecting it, via a cable, to a separate device," Vitolo said. "In our current approach, we are building a neckband; but it could be any number of form factors that are right for the use case. As 5G radio size and cost improves over time, as with other generations of past radios (3G/4G), integration directly into the device would become more commonplace."

Parks predicted that the next generation of VR devices will blur the lines between virtual and augmented reality thanks to the power of high-speed mobile data. "That will allow users to switch between virtual, augmented, and physical worlds seamlessly," he added.

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