Despite the marketing buzz about 4G, wireless carriers' message doesn't quite resonate with consumers. True, consumers are attracted to anything new, but they are much more interested in what you can do with a 4G smartphone than the fact that it supports 4G. But if 4G is not really "the next big thing" for mobile operators, then what is?
Augmented-reality applications -- and the cloud is the right platform for supporting the super-computing engines that power them.
Information becomes part of the environment
We must first look at how people use wireless services and devices. For the most part, smartphones are beginning to evolve into portable information overlays. In other words, smartphones are a way for people to access information about their world, wherever they happen to be. If 4G enables them to do that faster, then that's all the better.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the next major opportunity in wireless will be something that does a better job of integrating information into the consumer's personal space. This brings us to the idea of augmented reality -- being able to literally overlay what a person sees with information. In its simplest form, it would be a smartphone that allows one to see information tags overlaid on the smartphone's camera view. Augmented-reality apps like this already exist, but they are only harbingers of what is to come.
Once the smartphone's features and functions are embedded in a personal display device, like a set of glasses or contact lenses, then information can be made a part of the world the consumer sees. Paired with a gesture-recognition system, that visual display will replace all other data interfaces, since it is just as easy to project a virtual video and keyboard into the visual field as it is to project tags and text.
For the first time, information will not be isolated from the personal environment; it will be integral to it. It will no longer be possible to get lost or forget what is on the grocery list. With on-demand graphical rendering, a user's physical location can made to be anything or anyplace -- the coffee shop can be an office, an airport can be a living-room entertainment center. It will be possible for consumers to take their living and work spaces with them and make them seem to be literally where they are.
Why use the cloud for augmented reality apps?
By and large, wireless operators have missed the opportunity to leverage 4G for fun and profit. Rather than charging premiums for 4G access or 4G smartphones, 4G has simply been pitched as an improvement over 3G; one that follows the same commoditization curve to low margins. What carriers really need are high-margin services that ride over the 4G network and for which consumers will pay a premium. Augmented-reality apps fit that bill exactly.
Augmented reality is a game changer. Once it's adopted, consumers will demand networks and devices that improve the augmented-reality experience. The technology will change the whole dynamic between consumers, computing and communications. It will define a new digital divide and will drive demand for increased throughput and very high-quality services.
Legacy networks and data center architectures aren't built for this. Augmented-reality apps require a great deal of computing power to map data to a personal environment and render the appropriate representation of that data so that it fits the visual field of the consumer. This is, effectively, a job for supercomputing in the cloud. Operators are in a perfect position to provide those computing resources to make augmented-reality apps work -- and they can charge both third-party service providers and consumers for access to those cloud-based resources.
This brave new world is coming with or without the participation of wireless operators. Even now, companies such as Sensics are developing personal head-up displays that can deliver an augmented-reality experience. The IEEE reports that displays embedded in contact lenses are just around the corner, and Google is developing a set of glasses that will provide an augmented-reality experience.
Operators will need to engage quickly to take advantage of augmented reality. If they don't, then they will simply become a footnote to the next big thing -- one that they helped enable, but that ultimately made their primary service, access, into a wholesale component for augmented-reality apps.
About the author: Mike Jude is a program manager at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, where he oversees the consumer communication services practice. He brings 30 years of experience in technology management in manufacturing, wide area network design, intellectual property management and public policy. Jude holds degrees in electrical engineering and engineering management and a Ph.D. in decision analysis. He is co-author of The Case for Virtual Business Processes: Reduce Costs, Improve Efficiencies and Focus on Your Core Business (Cisco Press, 2003).