Gigabit dreams

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Gigabit dreams

There is a constant interplay between science fiction and science fact. Each enables the other. Fiction creates the inspiration, stretching the imagination beyond what is possible with today’s technology. And research advances the possible, creating tantalising insights that authors expand into imagined future realities.

The same sort of interplay has been seen throughout the history of telecommunications, between applications and the services on which they rely. People dream of ideas that are constrained by the available bandwidth, and only flourish once faster services arrive to support them. Once that bandwidth arrives, inventors and entrepreneurs find applications that go well beyond the early dreams. People talked for years about the prospect of videophones, but they only became practical, and desirable, with enough bandwidth and handsets that were both personal and portable. No-one in the early days of videophones imagined the same technology would spawn services like TikTok or Facebook Live, turning anyone into a creator or broadcaster.

Fiction leads fact, then fact creates a platform for new fiction. Now, as we stand on the cusp of another giant leap in bandwidth with news that Virgin Media has trialled a hyperfast home broadband connection offering speeds of nearly 10Gbps, we can begin to think again: what will tomorrow’s applications be? We can draw on both fiction and fact to feed our imagination. Starting with the facts, what does it mean to have dramatically more bandwidth?

More devices

More bandwidth means you can connect more devices without worrying that the consumption of one might diminish the performance of another. Given the vast and growing array of connected devices in our homes, this is welcome. Today, broadband doesn’t just serve a single connected PC as it might have done twenty years ago. It provides the pipe over which most of the household’s entertainment, and increasingly work, administration, and security traffic flows: cloud document storage, high-definition security cameras, streaming media systems, and immersive games. The number of connected devices in the home continues to increase, but so too does the number of people sharing the home.

The cost of adding connectivity to a device has collapsed, with just a few pence now all that is required to make a device ‘smart’. With improved battery technologies, wireless charging, and now the passive harvesting of energy from radio waves flowing through the air, the chances are that we will see more and more connected devices. The level of utility required to justify adding a connected computer to a device is now so low that it will become normal for many things to share their status, and monitor things like location, temperature, noise, moisture, or perhaps the wearer’s vital signs.

For the most part, these connected devices don’t need great bandwidth: a temperature reading might be just a few bits. But as camera technology condenses further, and voice and gesture become a more common interface, we can see the demands on the network from connected devices increasing.

These devices are often personal rather than bound to the household, and more people now share each household, bringing with them a greater number of devices. With houses unaffordable for many, and people settling down later in life, it’s increasingly common for three or four generations of the family to share the same home, or for people to continue sharing a rented house. This too places greater demands on the bandwidth available to the property, multiplying the effect of there being more devices per person.

There’s an argument that 5G will support most of these personal devices, but this ignores the lesson of the last two decades: services expand to fill the available spectrum. Running multiple devices per person over a 5G connection could be either expensive or impractical in densely populated areas, if the number of devices continues to grow at the current rate. Fast home connections will be just as critical to supporting future services if the experience is not to be constrained.

Richer services

More bandwidth means you can access richer materials on each device. Think about the shift from standard definition, to high definition, to 4K on TV. Each time we increase the quality of the picture and the sound, it requires more information. 3D TV may not have taken off but there’s a good prospect this advance continues, seeing us first get fully photo-realistic images on our flat screens, then start to immerse ourselves further in the picture.

Video is a hungry consumer of bandwidth but it isn’t the only one. We now stream huge amounts of audio, both into and out of our homes, with digital music services like Spotify driving traffic one way, and voice interfaces like Amazon Alexa and Google Home driving it the other. The vast channels of data both into and out of our homes can carry intelligence as much as entertainment, with remote computers translating sensory input, voice and gesture commands into actions. When we look to future applications of bandwidth, this intelligence is important.

Blending physical and digital

Taking these two clear shifts as a starting point, what does a future world of gigabit bandwidth look like in the home? Perhaps the best way to describe it is the breaking down of the divide between physical and digital worlds.

Imagine that the physical objects around us are increasingly smart, and that we can project virtual objects from the digital into the physical world. Though there are other options, like holograms, this is most likely to happen through the mass adoption of ‘mixed reality’, also known as ‘augmented reality’. Mixed reality brings together cameras and other sensors, with head mounted displays, fast processing power, and high bandwidth, to embed a digital experience in the physical world. Imagine interacting with a virtual person who looked entirely real, and as if they were sitting on the sofa opposite you, but who disappears when you remove your glasses. Imagine playing games in a virtual world overlaid on your home. Imagine interacting with colleagues as if you’re in the same space, not through the narrow screen to which we’re currently limited.

Just as early videophones didn’t make this sort of application very practical or appealing, so current generation mixed reality devices are a few years from supporting mass adoption. They are bulky, heavy, and make you look like an extra from Star Trek, or in some cases, Mad Max. The fields of view are narrow, forcing you to squint into a limited area of the screen, and the resolution is not yet good enough to make things feel truly real. Their ability to locate objects in physical space is also somewhat flaky. But we can see the direction of travel.

This type of device is the strongest candidate to replace smartphones as our primary interface to the digital world. Just like all technology, they will improve over time: the displays will get sharper and expand to fill our field of vision. The devices will be compressed until they look like a near-normal pair of glasses. But they will still be very hungry for bandwidth, sucking down virtual models to represent, and pushing back video of our world for analysis.

Mixed reality headsets don’t just present information, they collect it. The cameras on which they rely are brilliant general-purpose sensors, telling future AI assistants huge amounts about our world: what we buy and what we like, where we go, who we know. The mass adoption of mixed reality will also allow us to hand off a lot of tasks to a virtual assistant, using this data. And this will require upstream, as well as downstream bandwidth, since it’s unlikely this processing will be done on the headset.

Build it and they will come

This is just one possible interpretation of the services that might be enabled by the widespread availability of gigabit services. Reality will likely surpass future visions as it has throughout the short history of consumer internet services. But we should always experiment, sharing possibilities with creators: those who tell stories of a possible tomorrow, and those who will build the reality.

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Virgin Media is a client and I will be working with them around the launch of the trial referenced in this post.

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Tom Cheesewright