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Smart Tech Goes Niche With Devices That Specialize

We’re in the middle of a long-term trend to reduce the size of our connected devices. What used to be done on a bulky desktop is now a few taps away on a smartphone.

Now there’s growing interest in a class of smart devices that lies between the smartphone and sensors on the Internet of Things. It includes wearable devices—like smart watches and glasses—connected clothing and smart speakers. 

Together, they offer new possibilities for businesses and consumers. The advent of high-speed, low-latency data communications over 5G—combined with cloud and edge computing and storage—means that simpler, task-specific devices are poised to play a larger role.

Seeing More With Augmented Reality

Smart watches are expected to continue to lead the market in wearable devices over the next two years. Other lean, lightweight form factors—like head-mounted displays (HMDs) and smart glasses—have also been around for a while, but the technology is becoming more affordable and easier to wear and use. This makes it more likely that many business sectors, such retail, manufacturing and healthcare, will adopt it.

A new industry body, the LaSAR (Laser Scanning for Augmented Reality Alliance), was formed last year to accelerate the design and production of smart glasses and similar wearable AR devices. This development work includes balancing the need for small, lightweight form factors and very low power consumption with the requirement for a good field-of-view. 

It’s not only tech companies that are selling these personal display devices. Fashion eyewear brands are beginning to enter the market. The simpler HMD models can act as highly-portable monitors that place displays in the user’s field of vision. 

At a higher level of complexity, augmented reality (AR) glasses, or even smart contact lenses, could enable immersive experiences in many business environments, including these industries:

  • Retail: AR glasses would be able to overlay virtual information onto what would be seen in the real world. For example, to see the effect of new furniture in the home or try different combinations of clothes and accessories. This takes the experience that has been available on smartphones to a new level.
  • Manufacturing: HMDs could be used to show workers how to assemble complex products, or even—in combination with a smart glove—allow them to guide a robot to carry out operations from a remote location. Another emerging use case is in warehouses, where an HMD backed by a cloud database of item locations can help the workforce pick orders more quickly and  accurately.
  • Utilities: HMDs can also be used for training and guiding employees through procedures like installation and maintenance.
  • Healthcare: HMDs can be used to train staff and pre-med students and assist rookie doctors when they are performing routine medical procedures. The use of AR/VR in assisted care facilities is improving the quality of life for residents with dementia and alleviating symptoms in patients with a variety of mental health conditions.

Although Internet access may be available over Wi-Fi in some of these settings, connecting HMDs over 5G means they are not tethered to a particular location, and 5G also offers a low latency connection along with edge computing resources to more quickly process AR data.

Tailored Insights With Intelligent Apparel

Smart clothing is already available that allows the wearer to control their phone and access online services using gestures. 

Overall it’s a market that’s set to grow by more than 24%, putting it on pace to reach $6.42 billion globally by 2027.

Sports clothing is a typical early use case as it’s often close fitting, allowing tiny sensors next to the skin to collect data on the wearer’s performance and posture. ​​With the sensors connected to on-board artificial intelligence—and to the cloud over a 5G connection—the biomechanics data can help sports teams prevent injuries, improve rehab outcomes and make athlete movement more efficient and effective.

Smart clothing for the military offers a range of potential applications, such as simplifying communications and weapons control, tracking position, monitoring for hazardous conditions, as well as logging physical and mental wellbeing.

In a medical or senior care setting, a smart hospital gown could be used as an alternative to a bracelet to carry essential information. For hospital patients undergoing surgery, it could, for example, track a patient’s progress and location at the hospital, from check-in to consultation to surgery prep—all the way to discharge. 

The potential for including sensors to monitor vital signs makes it even more useful. ABI Research found that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of wearables that can identify early symptoms of the virus and trigger alerts if the patient’s breathing deteriorates.

AI Assistant On The Move

Smart speakers or virtual assistants, connected to the cloud and powered by AI, have already become commonplace around the home and are increasingly being deployed in cars, too. These can either be installed by the auto manufacturer as part of the overall connected car functionality or as an aftermarket feature. 

Like their counterparts in the home, auto smart speakers can answer questions, stream music and control the car’s comfort and infotainment features. Because of the additional mobility, they can only function effectively with a reliable cellular broadband connection.

When voice assistants are used over 5G versus previous generations of cellular, service quality and consistency dramatically improves. This is because 5G can provide a dedicated URLLC (ultra-reliable low-latency communications) network slice for the voice communications.

5G’s impact beyond the smartphone

Smartphones aren’t going anywhere—but they are being joined by a host of connected devices in varying form factors. Given their reliance on computing power and storage—in the cloud or at the edge—all of these emerging, mobile, thin-client devices will depend on a robust, reliable 5G connection like T-Mobile’s nationwide network. From more efficient field operations to the future of healthcare, see what the 5G future could look like—and why choosing the right network provider matters.

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