Movies and video games are poised for a 5G upgrade

March 20, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

More live video gaming, lag-free virtual reality, glitch-free YouTube videos, and movie downloads in just a few seconds.

This is the promise of 5G, which has been hailed as a revolutionary technology when it comes to entertainment. Yet that superfast wireless network, the successor to today’s 4G, is arriving much more slowly than many had hoped.

Essentially, 5G is the culmination of decades of improvements in wireless technology. The chronology goes like this: 1G—the first generation of wireless introduced in the 1980s—gave us voice over wireless. Then 2G added text, 3G enabled basic mobile computing, and 4G increased speeds by a factor of 10 while delivering app-based mobile computing. The coming 5G will enable more devices to be connected simultaneously—up to 1 million devices per half square mile—and at speeds of up to one gigabit per second, 10 times as fast as today’s slower networks. 

Translation: No more buffering. No more waiting.

An HD movie will download in 32 seconds, compared with 22 minutes. Sharing gigantic documents between phones will take seconds. Apps will be packed with more power and features.

Now, for a dose of reality. The lightning-fast 5G has taken a while to get here. The broad swath of 5G that’s been deployed has been only marginally faster, probably 20% faster, than what’s available today. Verizon, for instance, debuted 5G in 30 cities, but because it relies on a high spectrum, the service can’t travel very far and has trouble going through walls. Customers can’t get a fast connection unless they’re standing in the right spot.

AT&T rolled out its “low-band” 5G to 100 cities—which means the signal can travel further, but its service isn’t as fast. Only 35 of those cities have the infrastructure for the faster 5G using millimeter waves.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile introduced 5G to a huge area that’s home to 200 million people. But because it’s low-band, the service is slower.

No one really knows when the full power of 5G will actually change our daily lives.

“5G is kind of here, but it still has a lot of growing up to do,” says Jason Leigh, who follows the sector for research firm IDC.

When 5G is more widely available, which could be in a couple of years or more, it will indeed change the entertainment world, say analysts. Video accounts for most Internet bandwidth used today, and if downloading gets even faster, consumers will likely spend more time on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.

Meanwhile, Big Tech is gearing up for a 5G explosion of cloud video-game streaming, in which video games are accessed from centralized servers rather than on downloadable software. Game streaming is already popular, but 5G’s faster network could make it more attractive to gamers.

In November, Google premiered its cloud-streaming service, Stadia, while Sony partnered with Microsoft to create more cloud storage services for game streaming. Meanwhile, hoping to gain traction in the gaming world, Amazon last year paid nearly $1 billion for Twitch, which now accounts for 43% of all live video-streaming traffic. And gaming companies Nvidia and EA are each pursuing their own cloud game streaming services. 

Pro-sports games may also change. The superfast speeds of 5G could deliver more immersive experiences for sports fans, allowing them to see different camera angles and stats during games, and enabling people to buy food and drinks without pulling out their wallets—much like a customer moves through Amazon’s cashier-less Go stores. To deliver real-time player data to fans, the NFL is working with Amazon Web Services and Verizon, which has installed 5G in 13 NFL stadiums.

There’s plenty that consumers won’t see, however, when it comes to 5G and entertainment. NFL teams may start using real-time remote coaching, whereby players receive advice through virtual reality, holograms, and devices embedded in their clothing that can measure their heart rate and real-time movements.

In Hollywood, most every film studio is exploring how 5G can making transferring large video files quicker. A full-length animated feature film today demands huge computer processing power and hundreds of terabytes of storage.

And it’s not just about data storage for films. Studios are experimenting with augmented and virtual reality. For example, last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment launched Spider-Man: Far From Home, a multiplayer virtual reality experience that lets people feel as if they’ve become Spider-man, swinging among skyscrapers and competing against other players. But so far, those baby steps haven’t gained much traction with consumers, because the images sometimes stutter when using slower online connections.

Movie theaters are also counting on 5G to improve film watching. Cinemark Theatres installed virtual reality with technology that delivers vibrations and touch to users inside a theater in Plano, Texas. The goal is to enable people to literally feel and experience films.

Then this fall, Los Angeles–based PORTL Hologram plans to install “hologram” booths inside a dozen theaters and museums that will let people interact with moving, life-size, hologram-like characters. The images, while not true holograms, are two-dimensional, look lifelike, and could be used by studios, sports teams, and agencies to promote events and films. When 5G arrives, the company will be able to show off more sophisticated imagery, says PORTL founder David Nussbaum. Consumers will be even more enthralled.

 “For us, 5G will be a game changer,” Nussbaum says. “I’m ready. It’s just a matter of time.”

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