Ian Hughes, Senior IoT Analyst at 451 Research and Chair BCS Animation and Games SG, stops playing Fortnite and asks what 5G might mean for the future of interactive entertainment.

You have heard of 5G and are looking forward to the next evolution of communication technology, but what are you going to do with it? One area that may well see the benefit is gaming. Since we are nearly all gamers of some sort now, it’s worth looking at the potential this communication revolution will have on our experiences.

I feel the need, the need for speed

Regardless of the label applied to the communication technology, something that is essential for nearly all games is network speed. No gamer ever said: ‘I wish this would take longer to download.’

5G aims to deliver more appropriate network speeds depending on the workload and requirements of the job. Many games, especially on console and PC, demand tens or hundreds of GB of data. Not only that but the constant adaptation of long-running games means equally large patches, fixes, upgrades and the inevitable downloadable content (DLC). This is usually game producer speak for: ‘give me some more cash to extend the gameplay’. Hence, a large, fast, stable connection to deliver content to gaming devices is a must.

It could seem old fashioned to talk of dedicated PCs and games consoles and the industry has long been trying to explore game streaming to lower power devices, and services do exist for this to happen today. Here the game is actually run at the other end of a connection in a cloud service where a great deal more power can be applied to it, or old games can be more easily run on emulators for the retro gamer.

Sony’s Playstation Now and Gamefly Streaming are examples of these types of service. Aside from the actual smooth streaming of the gaming picture, which will increasingly grow in resolution and bandwidth, as today’s high end 4k games are tomorrow’s retro game, this also requires a very low latency network connection.

When you respond to what you see on the screen, such as jumping out of the way of a boulder or aiming at a target and firing, a high latency means you’ll lose - or worse. If lag is too large, that carefully crafted, designed and deployed gameplay will be destroyed.

Sending small packets of information at infrequent times is more of a challenge to a network than opening a consistent streaming connection. The time from generating the message, such as a fire button being pressed, to the signal being received, is the latency. 5G is looking to offer very low latency, such as 1ms, where a 4G network is 50ms. Broadband does offer lower latency than 4G but it is often inconsistent.

5G is not just about radio frequency or cell tower communication but works across all network types. A particular message may take a different software defined route based on its requirements. This is the same set of requirements we see with internet-of-things data. Control data needing a fast-low latency path and bulk data taking a different path, is by no means only needed for gaming.

These boots were made for walking

Gaming is a global multi-billion-pound industry and mobile gaming now makes up a significant part, reportedly nearly half, of all the revenue. Naturally, the elements of 5G we looked at above apply to mobile devices as much as to fixed gaming consoles, but with the added challenge of keeping these connections working while moving around.

Finding and maintaining a consistent connection as we flow from home to mobile device and back again, trying to persist a gaming experience, will be helped by the ultimate implementations of full 5G. We are already used to pick-up-where-we-left-off video streaming services such as Netflix, but all our interactions will move to this mode, allowing live transition.

We may find a greater increase in mobile gaming with the other major use of 5G - autonomous vehicles. These cars will be communicating vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure as they take us from place to place, in part using 5G.

But, what are we going to be doing sat in - but not driving - these platforms? Conceivably a large amount of time will be spent consuming video content or more likely, interacting with game environments. We may pick up our console game via a mobile and transition it to the in-car screen of a car we only rent for the duration of our journey.

You spin me right round baby

Current video streaming for our 4K ultra HD screens is already putting strain on existing networks. A rise in the use of 360-degree video for VR headsets will start to create even more of a challenge. Currently most 360-degree videos only use HD resolution and wrap the entire picture into a sphere that the viewer is placed in. This reduces the quality and resolution of the elements of the picture the user is actually watching.

Ramping up the resolution has a multiplier effect on the bandwidth needed for fixed point of view recorded or live video. Very high-quality content is another multiplier. This all makes the streaming of navigable graphics in 3D very hard to deliver.

Here latency, where you move or turn your head and the scene is re-rendered, creates nausea. So, VR type experiences have not typically been delivered as a streaming experience. At the moment, most VR experiences run locally on either high-end PCs, consoles or in slightly less powerful modes on stand-alone headsets or with smartphone attachments. High bandwidth, wire free, streaming from powerful computing resources, with a low latency, can produce some fascinating VR experiences that could start to emerge in the next generation of content.

Divide and conquer

What we do not yet know is what 5G network techniques might start to offer when applied to game experiences with a twist. We have already experienced the massive wave of interest in location-based gaming with Pokemon Go a year or so back. That was simply using a smart phone, yet it spawned some connected IoT style wearables to help in hunting the Pokemon critters.

What did those need? Connectivity! With more diverse devices and a vibrant crowdsourced world of game design, we may see some fascinating gameplay evolutions benefit from the evolution and ultimate accessibility of 5G. This article was originally going to be called: ‘Games Get Grander Graphic Grace’, but as you can see, 5G means a lot more than just better looks.