The 2017 GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) took place in Barcelona last week. MWC is the world's biggest mobile industry conference, and the place to look for sports executives wondering what's coming down the track in mobile and connected technology. Journalist Adrian Pennington was there, and picked out the key developments the sports industry should be looking out for.
5G to power ultra-HD video and VR applications
Video delivered to mobile devices in super-high resolution, with no buffering or delay, and immersive virtual reality (VR) environments were centre-stage at MWC last week. To carry this next generation of mobile video services, the mobile industry is looking to the next generation of mobile networks: 5G.
“5G and VR are both technologies with enormous potential,” says Howard Watson, CEO of BT technology, service and operations. “Drawing on the high bandwidths and low latencies of 5G will allow us to go beyond the already compelling VR experiences that are possible over 4G, and cater for more interactive future VR content which will place people right at the heart of the action.”
Broadly, 5G will mean speeds up to 10 times faster than today’s 4G networks – fast enough, for example, that an episode of the TV show Game of Thrones could be downloaded in fewer than 4 seconds.
BT used MWC to demonstrate a replayed VR broadcast of the Tottenham Hotspur vs CSKA Moscow Uefa Europa League clash last December. This was filmed by UK pay-television operator BT Sport on the Nokia Ozo VR camera and transmitted via the Finnish firm’s 5G tech. Viewers with VR goggles were able to 'sit' in a virtual VIP box anywhere in Wembley Stadium.
5G trials starting, services expected in 2020
Telcos around the world are trialing 5G but a universal standard and solid business cases are not expected before 2020.
South Korea's SK Telecom, for example, will launch trial services this year with a target date of 2019 for commercial services. It plans to showcase its service at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Analyst Ovum predicts that more than 50 operators will be offering 5G in 30 countries by the end of 2021, with the majority of an estimated 25m subscriptions concentrated in the US, China, Japan and South Korea.
Before then, there will be significant upgrades to existing mobile networks to satisfy the incredible demand for video viewing on-the-go. Mobile data traffic is set to grow 15x by the end of 2017, with video the main culprit. For major events such as next year’s Fifa World Cup in Russia, where demand for live video on mobile is likely to be at an all-time high, the latest compression techniques are being explored.
5G doesn’t stop at VR or 4K video – it can potentially permit live streams of sport in 8K – 16 times HD resolution – something only possible hitherto over satellite and dedicated academic and research internet networks.
There is even talk of holographic broadcasting – where VR headsets would be unnecessary and viewers could potentially walk around a 3D projected representation of the sports action.
Perrette: Change required in sports storytelling
JB Perrette, president and CEO of broadcaster Discovery International, told MWC that content has to be re-imagined for the always-on, multiple-screen world in which the same viewer might want to watch Michael Phelps win a gold medal, find out his age, see who he is dating, and then tweet about it all a few seconds later.
Simply streaming live broadcasts “will not be enough” to gain fans or retain subscribers. Storytelling needs to be layered, personalised and reduced for consumption in bite-size chunks.
Discovery is planning for the 2018 Winter Olympics, exploring VR coverage and supplying data from wearable biometric sensors. These sensors could supply data on athlete heart rates and glucose levels, for example, targeted to different audiences – from high-level obsessive fans to the more casual sports enthusiasts.
Voice control and AI will form content gateways
If 5G is to provide the technical glue binding networks and devices, then the future consumer interface looks likely to be a combination of voice and facial recognition powered by increasingly powerful artificial intelligence (AI).
We can already talk to digital assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Google Assistant via our phones, sound systems and TVs. This technology is set to become ubiquitous and a whole lot smarter as AI hoovers up more and more data about our preferences and habits.
Google at MWC announced the launch of a home speaker/listener device this summer, following in the footsteps of Amazon's Echo and Dot, and said it would install its voice AI on all Android phones.
The sophistication of digital assistants will evolve quickly from simple commands to something akin to conversations as natural language processing and understanding of accents is combined with user specific data.
What does this mean for sport? For one thing it is clear that content discovery and advertising is set to become voice-driven, so gaining an understanding of the hooks – the SEO if you like – needed by the main AI engines to drive relevant content to consumers could become crucial.
Secondly, if they weren’t already powerful enough, the companies behind the major four virtual assistants could develop an even stronger lock on the end-user as they battle it out to become the market-leading AI in 'smart' homes, vehicles, and all connected devices.