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Next-gen Comms: Interactive, Immediate, Inspiring

By Jason Patterson

Telcos have watched their voice-call revenue stream evaporate thanks to low-cost alternatives and shifting user tastes, and mere incremental upgrades of what came before will not turn the tide. They must seamlessly integrate all the different ways that users communicate today, and add all-new levels of experience to the real-time communication equation. This article considers a few.

Empowered users

Amere 15 years ago, ordinary phone calls were still the pinnacle of remote communication between persons. Today they seem rather quaint – an afterthought as we shop for our next smartphone. What happened? Several things, but what really changed the game was SMS text messaging. Ironically, text didn’t start out (and still isn’t) a “gee-whiz” alternative to voice calls; it was just a cruder, slower, more telegraphic alternative that was easier on the wallet. But, it didn’t take long for people to start appreciating its inherent advantages – the extra time it gives you to compose your thoughts, the greater ease with which bad news can be delivered, and most importantly, the fact that it can be answered with discretion, at your discretion. Phone calls are loud, disruptive, and demanding. They simply must be answered, now! Texts, however, wait for you, giving the user a feeling of power.

As the Internet and its smart terminals have proliferated, our patience and willingness to idle have eroded, thanks to the fact that we can now surf, watch, listen to, play, and otherwise experience whatever we want, when we want. And we can share these experiences as well (whether we’re asked to or not), thus enhancing that aforementioned feeling of power, something rarely parted with willingly.

An era’s end

The telecom sector spent its first century providing voice calls, and made a pretty good living at it, back when voice was the peak of remote personal communications. But it’s not anymore, and never will be again. Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) technology will help maintain voice as a viable revenue stream for operators, but it will not restore voice to what it once was. User expectations have changed. Spontaneous voice calls now seem disruptive, and what once seemed like “real-time communication” now comes across as “wait-your-turn communication,” with your smartphone unable to be used for any of the things you would rather be doing with it while you hold it next to your head. This feels like idleness, something we rarely tolerate today. Adding video to the mobile equation will certainly help, as it brings a conversation closer to same-room dynamics, but let’s face it, a lot of us aren’t willing to stop surfing or sending emails even when the person we’re talking to really is in the same room, looking at us disapprovingly. So what’s a telco to do?

Redefining communication

Telcos are now trying on a variety of new hats – media, Internet, finance, etc. But communication is and always will be a core function, but with free and lower-cost alternatives always springing up, how can they provide a compelling experience? There are two ways forward. One involves integrating all the other ways in which people are accustomed to expressing themselves today into the “talking on the phone” experience (what might be called “voice+”). The other is to offer completely new forms of real-time communication. We’ll start with the former.

It also makes phone calls

When 4G LTE first arrived, it lacked a corresponding voice upgrade to go with its boosted data rates, and this fact among others seems to have compelled certain operators to start “giving” away voice for free as part of their data packages. But LTE is the first generation designed with the modern mobile consumer in mind (3G was designed before phones had cameras), making it far more suited to breathing new life into the telco voice call experience than what came before.

South Korea’s LG Uplus is an LTE leader (first in the world with a nationwide network), and the first operator in the world to actually embrace VoLTE, with other operators in East Asia such as HKT following suit. But for LG Uplus, VoLTE has just been the warm-up act. The operator now offers Uwa, a service that it says in its advertising is for when “you are tired of just talking while you are calling” that offers screen-sharing, music-sharing, location-sharing, sketching, camera sharing, and gaming, all while a voice and/or video call is in progress. The operator also offers “LTE broadcast,” which is basically the ability to stream what your smartphone video camera is seeing to other screens (up to 10 in the case of LG Uplus).

Room for the future

But all that is merely a matter of bringing the telco voice-call experience into the 21st century, where information is free to pass between people across vast distances. But the future of real-time communication lies in making those distances dissolve – in enabling shared experiences where every participant feels as if in the same room.

Video conferencing and telepresence were supposed to deliver this, and reduce costs to boot, but they haven’t lived up to the hype so far. Revenues have actually seen some declines in recent years, especially at the higher-end. According to James “Bo” Begole, Head of Huawei’s Media Technologies Lab, “People have come to expect a poor video communication experience where you cannot really feel the remote presence because the remote people are smaller (than they would be in real life), framed by windows where parts of their bodies or heads are chopped off, people are not in view when they talk, the sound quality is thin and the video is choppy and jerky. Today’s video conferencing makes you fill in the blanks a little bit about what you’re seeing and how it relates to reality.”

MirrorSys (See Sidebar) is a research program by Huawei Media Lab to overcome this – a sort of virtual teleporter that makes the occupants of two different MirrorSys installations feel as if they occupy the same space. It relies on what Huawei calls “full-field communication,” which can be defined as the precise transmission of all the sights and sounds of one room to another, creating a scenario known as remote reality. For MirrorSys, this involves three cameras, 32 microphones, a 13-square-meter 32-megapixel wallscreen (equal resolution to the human eye at normal screen-viewing distances) and 22.2 channels of sound. Humans and other objects on the “other side” of the screen appear the same size as they would in real-life, with sound sources also matched, making for a 1:1 transmission and re-creation experience.

According to Begole, this does wonders for enterprise communications, “The full size of the remote people allows the communication to be more natural and more meaningful – as if you are right there with the people in the room, creating a stronger social bond as you read the subtleties of expression, emotion and body language. Studies have shown that this can increase the trust and commitment across distributed teams.” What’s more, Begole sees remote reality systems like MirrorSys as more social than the likes of VR, and lacking the discomfort of a head-mounted display.

Of course, things need not be so symmetrical for something like MirrorSys to find use in the workplace. In the future, it may be possible to fit all the necessary gear for full-field transmission inside a portable form factor, like a helmet or augmented reality (AR) headset. According to Begole, these systems would “reduce the cost of maintaining complex machinery such as power generators, heavy equipment, and aircraft. An experienced technician (in a MirrorSys suite) can guide a junior technician (perhaps wearing an AR headset) onsite while seeing and hearing the full spectrum of information coming from the problem machinery. You can certainly recreate the full field of light and sound in a head-mounted display today, and using binaural headphones as well, so that you can recreate the full spatial sound in a head-mounted earphone complemented with a wall-display.”

Could something like this catch on? There is hunger out there. According to MarketsandMarkets, the enterprise video market will more than double 2014 levels by 2019, hitting USD33 billion by that time after growing at a CAGR of 21%.

Metaverse or bust

Facebook and Google are probably the two most popular Internet homepages in the English-speaking world, and both companies are now jockeying to occupy the same position in the Internet’s virtual reality (VR) successor, known today as “the Metaverse.” Facebook made the first move through its 2014 acquisition of Oculus VR, maker of the Oculus Rift (probably the only VR headset that the average person can name). Google’s response took a different tack through the offering of Cardboard (actual name), an inexpensive (you can buy it for less than USD10 today), do-it-yourself headset that works by housing your smartphone very close to your eyes, described by Wired magazine as “VR’s gateway drug.”

Today, both companies’ moves are being interpreted as attempts to become the central hub for developers looking to create apps for immersive technologies. For the longer-term, cynics will look at these moves and think about advertising, as a virtual world would enable a much more complete picture of what users think, feel & do than the incomplete information you can get through the screens of today. Optimists will look at it as a way to ubiquitize VR, as the applications most people envision today (gaming, therapeutics, in-depth simulation, etc.), while potentially big markets, aren’t must-haves for average consumers. But virtual social media and virtual search would be must-haves if they caught on, and they would be better than what came before. Virtual social media would be more social than the “photo & status” experience we are often afforded today. Virtual search would have more fluid navigation than what we have today, thus reducing the importance of being on the first page, and thus creating a more fair & equitable world. Either would be a stepping-stone to real-time virtual person-to-person communication, or even avatar-to-avatar.

Where are we today? Facebook has announced ambitions for virtual newsfeeds, but little else thus far, and Oculus’s next headset iteration isn’t expected till early 2016. Google has recently put its former head of search design Jon Wiley in charge of its VR endeavors, while Cardboard has shipped over a million units since last year, and had its latest iteration announced this past May at the I/O conference, where the company also announced its design of a 16-lens camera that can make 360-degree recordings, and it’s development of the appropriate software, all as part of its Jump VR platform. At the event, Google stated, “We have ambitions beyond Cardboard. There are many other things going on.”

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