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Key Takeaways from AT&T SHAPE 2019

I recently attended the AT&T SHAPE conference held at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, CA. In its third year, AT&T promotes the event as the convergence of technology and entertainment. Attended by 20,000 people, the two-day event featured a series of presentations and panel discussions ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) to esports and the need for greater women’s inclusion in the entertainment industry. Speakers and panelists included such industry leaders and celebrities as Elizabeth Banks, Tyra Banks, Geena Davis, and Adam Silver. Also featured were new technology and device demonstrations, immersive entertainment experiences, and a short film competition.

Here are some of my takeaways from the event:

  • 5G is impressive, when it works. 
    • 5G can deliver on the promise for exponentially faster service. Attendees experienced 5G service from the network AT&T installed for the event, reporting download speeds as high as 1.8 Gbps within the studio’s Midwest town center. These speeds however were only achievable with direct line-of-sight of the 5G tower and no more than a couple hundred feet distance. Speeds dropped considerable past these distances, and 5G connectivity ceased to exist after the equivalent of less than two city blocks. These limitations highlight the significant investment in 5G towers that carriers will be forced to make to provide service in US cities.
    • AT&T, Samsung, Wipro, and other vendors offered a number of interactive demonstrations. Most notable of these were Ericsson’s arcade games. Wearing VR headsets, players engaged in games such as Whack-A-Mole and basketball at 5G, 4G, and 3G to experience the latency differences between the three. Game play at 5G was truly real time, there was a noticeable lag in response time at 4G, while 3G latency was so pronounced users compared it to playing after a few too many alcoholic beverages. Obviously building the gaming business case for 5G, the application of the technology to real-time scenarios such as automated cars and medical procedures was equally apparent.
    • Samsung provided the opportunity to play games from Hatch’s 5G cloud service on their new 5G 10S phone. However, the phone lost 5G connectivity early in the game, demonstrating the challenge 5G has in working indoors. While the Samsung team quickly reestablished the connection, the experience raises the question of how tolerant consumers will be for unreliability of a premium broadband service or four-figure phone.
  • Widespread 5G adoption remains years away.
    • Nearly all of the 5G products and solutions on display were in the development stage with no clear timetable for commercial introduction. For example, Intel’s autonomous car remains dependent on development of national 5G coverage and a supporting ecosystem before it will become a viable offering. Others, such as Nokia’s smart subway experience, were developed exclusively for the event, and as such, have immature business cases. The industry will need to address these and a host of other issues before large-scale adoption can take place.
  • Virtual Reality is improving but remains a work in progress.
    • While not billed as such, VR shared center stage with 5G at this year’s event with a range of vendors offering immersive experiences for attendees to sample. Promoted by astronaut and speaker Suni Williams, an experience by Felix & Paul Studios (in collaboration with NASA) allowed participants to join astronauts in a virtual reality tour of the International Space Station. Following a floating astronaut through the station complete with 360 views of the station simply by turning one’s head, the experience did convey some sensation of being inside the station. However, the theater experience lacked true interactivity and felt more like an enhanced IMAX film than a true AR experience. The experience also suffered from mediocre video quality and the discomfort of bulky VR headsets. These latter issues were common to almost all the VR demonstrations at the event. 
    • Magic Leap’s Game of Thrones and Mica AI personal assistant experiences provided participants with more interaction with the character. The Mica experience, in which participants interact with a human-like character to build a piece of art, was particularly impressive. 

  • Mica does not talk yet (she will in the future), instead interacting through body language including smiling, staring, averting her eyes and gesturing. Despite some awkwardness due to lack of audio and the streamlined and expensive ($2,300) headsets allowing too much “outside” visuals to enter the user’s field of vision, Mica was the most realistic VR experience at the event. It is easy to envision Mica (or Mica-like offerings) becoming common home personal assistants, as well as being utilized for remote education and training.
  • It is clear that significant challenges in areas of realism, engagement, and user comfort need to be addressed before consumers begin buying AR en masse. That said, the industry is steadily making improvement and the VR experiences at the event showed definite improvements over those of prior years. I am very much looking forward to seeing what advances will be demonstrated at next year’s SHAPE.

For Parks Associates' research on virtual reality, see Virtual Reality: The Evolving Ecosystem.

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