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Consumers have quickly taken up shopping online for products and services they are familiar with, but much commerce still occurs off-line when people want to “try before they buy.” New technologies have emerged to close the gap, but public policy will determine whether consumers will be able to enjoy them.
For example, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies could revolutionize the e-commerce experience, especially with the advent of 5G, or fifth-generation wireless networks. 5G offers speeds 10 times faster than those of current 4G technology, with more throughput and essentially no latency, or lag time. As 5G becomes more pervasive, technologies like VR and AR will be democratized.
While many associate VR and AR with video games, these technologies can help make products on a screen more real with images that can be rotated, enlarged, and experienced interactively. When a user holds up a smartphone’s camera, for example, AR can superimpose a desired product into the user’s view. VR can personalize a consumer’s experience by simulating a road trip, so that a person can buy a car without leaving home. Already, AkzoNobel’s award-winning Visualizer mobile app, downloaded some 20 million times, allows users to virtually paint living spaces in desired colors and gives customers the freedom to experiment with colors and make confident choices before purchasing paint.
E-commerce could become the top industry for VR and AR applications. The retail industry already spends over $1 billion annually on VR and AR solutions, and spending has grown by 240 percent per year, according to the VR/AR Association. Industry experts, such as Eric Prince of Cimmerse — a startup enabling AR technology for online sales of fashion products, luxury goods, home décor, and fine art — are eager for 5G and its increased speeds and capacity for more information. These features allow retailers to offer customers larger, more compelling visual experiences that could help close sales.
Prince describes how 5G would work for his clients: “Imagine a product like a full-size couch in hyper detail that you can place in your room. With 5G, we will be able to provide the couch, the room and everything in it, toss in a realistic human avatar with artificial intelligence that walks into the scene and helps end user with any information needed to complete the purchase.” The VR/AR Association’s 5G Industry Committee notes that this experience “cannot happen unless the networks that will have to support these applications can deliver the required performance, [e.g.,] latency on the order of several milliseconds.”
The US was the global leader in investment and innovation in 4G mobile networks and technologies, but China now has the edge with 5G. The US fell behind because of many missteps over the past decade, particularly with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) failing to fill the spectrum pipeline and imposing a series of misguided internet regulations which caused network investment to fall by $1 billion per year consecutively from 2014 to 2016.
Fortunately, the current leaders at the FCC corrected those errors in 2017 — clearing the way for the US to take the lead in 5G — with policies to streamline infrastructure deployment and make more spectrum available, specifically in the 3.7 GHz band later this year. These are incremental steps toward encouraging 5G deployment to help the US catch up to China. But the FCC must push forward with policies that make it easier to deploy the next generation of networks nationwide by streamlining regulatory and policy frameworks that inhibit build-out. With leadership at the federal level, states and cities can follow suit and embrace new technologies that improve people’s lives and stimulate growth.
The FCC has taken steps to enact policies to streamline wireless infrastructure rollout and unlock spectrum at the federal level. Now, states and municipalities must do their part to encourage investment. This matters for retailers because the US and China are in a race for the preeminence of e-commerce platforms and apps. If US app providers don’t get 5G networks fast, there won’t be a second chance to win.
This piece is based on the author’s op-ed in Forbes.
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