Ericsson and Vodafone Are Using Virtual Reality to Show How 5G Works

Playing a VR game with slow internet connectivity is worse than you'd think

BARCELONA, Spain—How do you promote one emerging technology? With another emerging technology.

While 5G internet connectivity—and its potential to transform everything from smart cities and homes to autonomous cars—is a hot topic, most cases are still hypothetical. However, Ericsson and Vodafone developed a way to illustrate how much of a difference a little speed can make in relation to 5G internet. For this week’s Mobile World Congress trade show, attendees that stopped by the Swedish company’s booth could put on a virtual reality headset for a real-life experience with lower and higher speeds while playing a video game similar to the hit first-person shooter Counter Strike.

According to Jasmeet Sethi, senior advisor of consumer insights at Ericsson’s ConsumerLab, one of gamers’ biggest frustrations is a lagging network. (After all, in game time, even a fraction of a second can make a difference between life and death.) However, the applications extend far beyond games; it’s also important for retailers and media companies that might be developing their own VR experiences.

“When a VR gaming experience goes wrong, we’ve seen the blame [put on] the connectivity provider, but also to the publisher of the content as well,” Sethi said. “And the Oculus software and headset provider. And VR in general.”

To show how frustrating a lagging internet can be even on a subconscious level, Ericsson partnered with neuroscience and marketing firm Neurothinking to measure brain activity during game play. Each participant wore an EEG on their head and a heart-rate monitor behind each ear. Researchers measured four biometric indicators: heart rate, stress levels, engagement rate and computational overload. 

On Wednesday morning, I tried the experience for myself, first putting on the neuro-gear, followed by a Oculus Rift VR head set. Then it was time to enter the battle zone. 

In order to make the demo as natural as possible, Ericsson wouldn’t tell me along the way when they slowed or sped up the connection with varying degrees of network lags. I’m not an avid gamer, so I’m by no means the best person to judge how a first-person shooter game should perform, but there there moments that seemed … off.

At one point, as I was trying to reload my rifle, my virtual hand wouldn’t let me pull the level or drop in another clip of ammo. Instead, it would grasp at the digital air for a second before finally lining up. Another time, I was racing toward an enemy soldier—gun ready—when suddenly he disappeared. Yet another time, I was dead before I even saw my killer.

While I wasn’t briefed on the process during gameplay, here’s what I discovered later: To simulate an unreliable network experience, Ericsson set the baseline to provide a lag time of 15 milliseconds–a generally good experience for today’s technology. However, it then added lag spikes of 100 milliseconds after five seconds of game play. 

This is actually the second year that Ericsson and Vodaphone have partnered to show the relationship between speed and biometric sentiment. Last year at MWC, they showcased this relationship with video speeds.

“If it does not match up with the expectation, if a user sees a buffering icon on the screen, it’s like making you feel as if you are in a dark room watching a horror movie,” he said. “That’s the sort of stress that you undergo.”

For my own results, a separate screen showed that I had a medium level of engagement—partially due to how confused I was at times both learning the game and then unconsciously dealing with the lags. At one point—the most intense part of game play—my heart rate peaked 21 percent higher than it was when I started the game. I also experienced cognitive overload, where my brain’s processing was 30 percent over capacity during the most demanding moments.

In January, the companies also conducted a larger experiment involving 60 online gamers in Spain in the same situation. Most of them were part of Vodafone’s professional e-sports league—which meant their level of tolerance was much lower than mine.

This year, researchers realized that lag in VR is three times more stressful to the user than a lag on a PC or online game. Because of the immersive natures of the six degrees of freedom that VR creates, it’s much more mentally taxing on gamers—which means the stakes of getting it right are even higher.

How pleased gamers are with VR speeds is especially important to the growing VR industry—given how much focus VR hardware and software companies are putting on marketing to gamers before going after a mainstream audience. That’s largely because gamers tend to be earlier adopters. (Facebook-owned Oculus even hired a new agency to specifically work with marketing to gamers.) So if you can’t please them, can you please anyone?

“One of the feedbacks that we had from those gamers was that if virtual reality really is to take off, then the network experience has to be pretty phenomenal,” Sethi  said. “When they were put in a VR environment, they found that it was more mentally taxing than planning and strategizing on a PC, and hence they believed that network lags just aggravate everything.”

Later this year, Ericsson and Vodafone plan to release the study with all of the results from the group of gamers studied. Among the results to be released are statistics that Sethi says will show how a poor VR experience can even damage a person’s short-term working memory. (For example, after being in VR with slow speeds, a person might be more forgetful about where they placed their keys on their way out the door.)

Sethi warned that “continued exposure in VR”—which he clarified is “on a daily basis for three or four hours a day”—it can “have a profound impact on the long term.”