I returned to Mobile World Congress for the first time in five years this week. Its sheer scale is quite overwhelming. Over 100,000 people are expected to visit the event over the course of the week.
That may not sound a lot if you’re used to covering sports games or protest marches. But this is people in suits (or increasingly, jeans and blazers). These people don’t often congregate on this scale. And they’re here to talk about the future of the mobile communications industry. Everything from the next handsets your network will sell you, to what standard the next networks will be built upon, plus everything in between, and beyond.
That people in an industry committed to communication at distance choose to meet physically says a lot, and reinforces something I’ve always said: the bandwidth of face-to-face communication remains unbeatable. If you want a rich, emotional interaction — and the multi-million pound deals signed at these events are often very emotional — then nothing beats doing it in person.
The same is true of experiencing what the show has to offer. The best bits of MWC are often not on the big glitzy stands. Huawei has taken over most of a hall to itself this year, exhibiting the expected (phones) and the unexpected (drone taxis). But I often find the coolest stuff is on the start-up stands. A quick dip into the first couple of halls (there are eight on one site, and more a shuttle bus ride away), found 360 degree camera neck bands, various robots, pocket sperm testers, and a smart shower (it sounds rubbish, I really want one). You can see endless videos and photos of all this, but it’s much more fun climbing in to the VR car demos, sticking headsets on, and having a good old play (I didn’t test the shower).
Physical and virtual
One noticeable common factor across many, many stands, is the presence of augmented, or virtual reality technology (xR). Most of these applications are in a corporate context right now: design aids, immersive experiences of prototypes, remote control, and human augmentation. My own client and host for the week, Accenture Digital, is showing a variety of demonstrations along these lines.
What I haven’t seen yet — and nor had John Keefe of Draw & Code / SwapBots, who I briefly caught up with — is much in the way of consumer applications of xR. I’m a big believer that this is coming, for lots of reasons. It represents a natural continuation of the line of evolution of the user interface that we’ve seen for the last fifty years. It represents a truly colossal business opportunity. And it’s one of the few applications that we can already see that would take advantage of the high bandwidth and low latency capabilities of the planned 5G networks.
I’ll keep exploring. One day, I’m confident the killer application for xR will appear.