Expect the world of entertainment to become a lot more immersive and interactive once 5G networks ramp up, as applications for augmented reality (AR) and even virtual reality (VR) blossom on smartphones.

As with every new generation of mobile networks, 5G enables faster speeds and lower latency. Mobile gaming is especially primed to benefit from this, so there’ll be more and better real-time games on the market as 5G gains traction.

Some of that gaming will be competitive, so there’ll be even more people watching esports on apps like YouTube and Amazon’s Twitch.

Even if you’re not a gamer or an esports fan, you’ll soon have many more AR and VR apps in your entertainment diet – particularly at live events, like sports or a music festival.

At this year’s Coachella music festival, audience members were able to hold their phones up during performances and see space-themed AR content. It wasn’t scripted either, because the AR effects responded and reacted to the live performances in real-time.

It will take a while for 5G-enabled mobile handsets to come onto the market and be bought en masse. The list of 5G Android devices at this point is small, while no current Apple iPhone model supports 5G. So it’ll be 2020 at least before 5G apps really make an impact.

Regardless, now is the time to start thinking about what’s next in mobile entertainment. If the era of 4G was defined by the rise of online video, then 5G points to a much more immersive future.

Vodafone NZ’s Consumer Director, Carolyn Luey, says this about previous generations of mobile technology: “When you think back to 3G, everybody thought nobody would ever watch video on a mobile phone – the screen’s too small, it’s not a good user experience.

Carolyn Luey, Vodafone NZ Consumer Director. Photo / Supplied
Carolyn Luey, Vodafone NZ Consumer Director. Photo / Supplied

Then the 4G evolution came in; and guess what, now everybody’s watching video on a small screen.

“So it’ll be the same with 5G – as the network grows in coverage and people get 5G handsets, I think a whole lot of use cases will open up that, in today’s 4G world, don’t make a lot of sense.”

If there’s one common theme to the types of immersive and interactive entertainment apps that 5G will encourage, it’s much more will happen outside.

Until now, the most popular global games – such as Fortnite and Minecraft – have been mostly played on a gaming console like Playstation or Xbox, meaning they’re usually played inside, in the family lounge or in your teenager’s bedroom. While mobile gaming has also increased in popularity over the past several years, hardcore gamers still prefer to use video consoles connected to powerful PCs.

But that may be about to change if, as promised, 5G blows away the latency cobwebs for mobile gaming.

“5G is going to be low latency and it’s going to be well designed for real-time interactions via mobile gaming,” says Luey.

More interesting is how the games themselves will evolve in a 5G environment. They’re bound to get more immersive. The AR sensation Pokemon GO was an early indicator of what we’ll see in the near future. But look out also for more VR games.

You may justifiably scoff at any VR hype, since up till now VR has been a disappointment in the market. Even despite Facebook’s acquisition of the Oculus Rift in 2014, VR has remained a complex, expensive and – crucially, in this era – not very mobile consumer technology.

But with 5G built into the headsets, VR could finally be untethered from PCs and network cords. Okay, you may not want to stumble down the road wearing a pair of VR goggles.

However, you might want to slip them on at a local cafe or park, to enjoy a VR music, sports or gaming experience while out and about.

A related trend is the rise of cloud gaming services, such as Google Stadia (launching this month in 14 countries, although not yet in NZ) and a Vodafone partner called Hatch which launched in the UK and Europe this year. Google Stadia is said to be capable of streaming video games of up to 4K resolution, with 8K on the horizon. Even 4K will require a fast network like 5G.

Let’s not forget about mobile video – it too will innovate. Luey thinks there’ll be more interactivity with video, for example in social media apps like TikTok and Snapchat.

“What the younger generation likes about TikTok is the interactive nature of it,” she says, “and how you can overlay different imagery into the videos and so on.”

It’s easy to imagine a technology like 3D holograms integrated into apps like Instagram and TikTok in the near future. There’s a local connection here too, since Wellington-based startup 8i is one of the early leaders in mobile 3D technology.

The key word for all of this – the real-time games, the AR apps at sporting events or concerts, the 5G-enabled VR headsets, the interactive videos – is ‘experiences’. You will no longer simply consume entertainment, you’ll experience it.

That’s a future worth getting excited about.