WASHINGTON, October 16, 2014 – Three-dimensional holograms. Immersive virtual reality environments. Instant face-to-face meetings that match physical meetings and inch closer to a real-life virtual hug. These are among the technologies made available by gigabit networks, according to “Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age,” a report released last week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project.
“What is striking about the answers in the report is that technologists are way ahead of current reality,” said Lee Rainie, the Director of the Internet Project, in an interview.
The report surveyed more than 1,400 experts from academia, tech firms and the industry about their thoughts on the report’s two titular topics: apps and connectivity in 2025.
Presently, said Rainie, today’s bandwidth may be adequate for present-day broadband services. But with upstarts like Google Fiber and others, and incumbents including AT&T and CenturyLink beginning to offer Gigabit Services in select areas, experts see a future that is only just over 10 years away.
Filled with techno-optimism, the report documents potential advances with huge impacts on education and health care. Those two industries have not yet experienced the transformative power of the internet.
And while some experts voice concern about a growing digital divide – call it the Gigabit gulch – contingent upon certain broadband speeds or infrastructure builds, others were more optimistic about the future of America’s Gigabit Networks.
Telepresence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
Technologists see telepresence, plus virtual and augmented reality, as areas most promising and exciting for the dawning of a Gigabit age. “Current virtual alternatives to in person presence are insufficient and lacking in power,” said Rainie. “It currently is just not a rich social experience.”
Yet many of the survey respondents see a future with vivid telepresence allowing people to interact and connect instantaneously. Respondents talked about 3D holograms, immersive virtual reality for games and just “hanging out.”
Advances in augmented reality will “extend people’s sense and understanding of their real-life surroundings,” the report reads. One of the wildest insights from the report is Marcel Bullinga’s assertion that people will have to compete for jobs with real-life holograms, which he dubs “cloud immigrants.”
Next Up: Education and Health Care
Just as digital social networks and e-commerce services have redefined the way people interact with others, these experts see these advances in technology and greater and wider-spread connectivity as particularly impactful on education and health and medicine.
There will be more options and immersive experiences for online education. Francois-Dominique Armingaud, a retired computer engineer from IBM, talked about internet protocol multicasting: "Just imagine giving a guitar course online to 18 people or more scattered anywhere at a time."
A big theme for the future of health apps is telemedicine. This allows patients to be virtually monitored and diagnosed. Responders see wearable technologies providing 24 hour a day, 7 day a week monitoring of users’ body functions. That will help both doctors and patients.
RTI International Senior Clinical Informaticist Robert Furberg discussed health apps that help people manage chronic illnesses. Even remote surgery is under discussion. Chen Jiangong, a Chinese internet business analyst, said that big data will create services that forecast and respond to people’s emotional needs.
Low Latency Is King
Faster speeds and greater bandwidth are important to these technological advances. Increasingly, lower latency will be a crucial factor in the effectiveness of apps.
Latency refers to time between an action and that action being perceived. Conduct business meetings through 3D holograms, performing remote surgery, or interacting with a virtual world will only be effective if there is low latency.
Businessmen must be able to talk without worrying about talking over each other. A surgeon must be able to trust that her scalpel will move exactly when and where she moves it. Participants in a virtual world must be able to instantaneously respond to another user’s action.
Any amount of delay would kill these killer apps, and they would feel more like novelties rather than essential services.
A New Gigabit Gulch?
While most experts agree that Gigabit Networks will be more affordable and widely available by 2025, many fear that a growing Gigabit gulch, with only some able to reap the benefits of the Gigabit age.
If Gigabit Networks are to truly reshape education and health, students and medical patients in areas of the country without the infrastructure to support higher speeds will be harmed. Those areas might well be rural and poor areas.
But some experts are more optimistic about overcoming any new digital divide. Some, like business professional Todd Cotts, doubt that gigabit speeds are truly needed. “Moore’s Law would suggest that applications will be created that require less bandwidth to function at more than optimal levels of user experience,” he said. Others cited Google’s jump into the Gigabit broadband market as an encouraging sign for a future with more widespread high-speed internet access everywhere.
A theme underlying the Pew Research Center report is the vital importance of nationwide, high-speed internet access – and the fear that the current rural infrastructure will not support it. Upcoming Federal Communications Commission decisions about the future of municipal broadband and network neutrality may impact the future path the internet’s evolution – and whether or not these “Killer Apps for the Gigabit Age” will ever truly come to pass.