Will 5G Change the Thanksgiving Day Parade Forever?

Verizon and NBC bring a 5G, AR, and VR casserole for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day Parade

 Lifewire / Maritsa Patrinos

I couldn’t decide which was worse, the wind whipping through my four layers of clothing or the refrigerator-cold steel bleachers right below my frozen bottom. But it was worth it, I told myself, for the opportunity to sit mere feet away from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats, celebrities, balloons, and the circa-2017 Today Show team.

That was also the first year Macy’s, NBC, and Verizon introduced their 360 Livestream. Ever since then, they've put 360-degree cameras in strategic positions inside the parade and then sent those feeds to NBC.com (along with a handful of other platforms, including YouTube). A 360-degree view means you can grab and drag the camera view to look at what you want to, especially if you want a closer look at is he real? "Santa Claus."

I would not have traded my frigid parade experience for a small screen, choose your own adventure access to the iconic parade, but we didn’t have 5G back then or an obsession with virtual experiences and people.

Thanksgiving Day Parade
A little preview of NBC's Verizon 360 Live Parade experience.  NBC

Real and Unreal

This year, Macy’s, NBC, and Verizon are checking all those boxes with another edition of the Verizon 360 Live Stream, but with some intriguing wrinkles. Here’s some of what they’re planning:

  •  Watch the parade as a multi-camera, 360-degree livestream
  • See Virtual Balloons that were never part of the actual parade
  • Watch those balloons transform (this sounds creepier than it should)
  • Fun facts will float alongside floats and performers
  • The livestream will also feature holographic celebrity appearances
  • A new, real-time parade portal in New York City’s Bryant Park.

Strike up the Ultra Wideband

Thanksgiving Day Parade
My view of the 2017 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was so cold, but I held the camera steady. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It’s no surprise that 5G is getting the next best thing to a dedicated float (though I would love to see a 5G parade float) at this year’s parade. 5G is the biggest mobile broadband story of the year and will dominate the wireless conversation over the next few years. It promises speeds as much as 100-times faster than 4G. In recent months, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T (strike that, they like to push 5GE), have announced fresh 5G expansions in metropolitan cities around the U.S., including portions of New York City. 

Even so, relatively few consumers carry 5G-enabled smartphones (even though many people believe they already have it), which means they can’t experience the benefits of 5G, except in group experiences like the parade.

As Verizon noted in its recent 5G Parade announcement, “This type of unique experience is made possible on Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network; and it is why Verizon has initially focused on bringing 5G to public spaces—indoor arenas, stadiums, parks and business centers.”

It also means that the 5G portion of the parade experience is essentially limited to that Bryant Park Portal.

In the Box

Thanksgiving Day Parade
Who needs virtual balloons when you have this?.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of sitting in a small, albeit heated space where I can see what looks like an up-close 360-degree video of the live parade is pretty attractive, especially since I can still remember what my fingers didn’t feel like (they were numb) after sitting in the real parade stands for 5 hours.

Macy’s, Verizon, and NBC, however, aren’t satisfied with putting viewers inside the parade (with hosts Terry Crews and Lily Singh). No, they have to add holographic performers and virtual balloons.

The balloons, according to a Macy's spokesperson, will "engage and give audience members a chance to interact with the experience." Plus they'll get to vote on what each AR balloon (whale, penguin, octopus, robot, and dragon) looks like.

I don’t get it. The magic of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, really any parade, is that it’s real and that the balloons are larger-than-life representations of beloved characters. 

Why do we need “sorry I can’t be there in person” holographic performers when the real deals are out there lip-synching? 

There’s nothing quite like seeing one of those giants floating almost right over your head. They glide through real air and get buffeted by unpredictable winds while hundreds of handlers struggle to keep them under control. Plus, I’ve seen what it takes to create these tech and artistic marvels. They deserve better than to compete with virtual pretenders.

Why do we need “sorry I can’t be there in person” holographic performers when the real deals are out there lip-synching and sometimes really singing their hearts out in the cold (and sometimes rain and snow)? 

Won’t any of these people feel a little undermined by the existence of these augmented reality and virtual reality entities?

Probably not.

Last year’s parade was watched by 23.68 million people. It’s likely a fraction of that will experience the parade solely through the 360 experience. And I’m sure an even tinier number will be checking out the Bryant Park Portal. In other words, the live-version is in no danger of being upended by this 5G extravaganza.

The Possibilities

I do wonder, though, when we’ll start to see a more seamless integration of all this digital parade technology. I really like the idea of pop-up information windows around parade floats, performers, and balloons. Since most of us are watching a digital feed anyway, I’m sure NBC could enable access to these virtual bits on a per-viewer basis. To learn more about a balloon, you'd pause the video, navigate to a highlightable on-screen parade object, and press "Select."

Thanksgiving Day Parade
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’m less excited about virtual balloons, even those we can vote on. I say leave the parade to the real balloons and if NBC, Macy’s, and its partners want to feature a real crowd-sourced balloon, start the online process months in advance with a wide selection of virtual balloons that we can vote on. What could be more exciting than seeing a virtual balloon realized as the real thing in a future parade?

So What

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an analog remnant of a bygone era with a thoroughly digital spine. The technology that goes into creating the floats and balloons is mind blowing, as is the sheer scale of the broadcast technology it takes to bring the three hour event to millions of HDTVs every year. Do we need to fold our obsession with VR, holograms, and crowd-sourced opinions into this iconic event? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being a bit of a Scrooge. Put me in that warm portal, hand me some warm cider, and let me bliss out to three hours of head-spinning 360-degree parade content, and I might just change my mind.

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