During the moving performance of John Lennon’s Imagine at the PyeongChang Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 9, 1,270 South Koreans entered PyeongChang Olympic Stadium with LED lights to form a giant dove of peace. Perhaps with the foul memory of burning doves at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the bird returned in a more graceful form with advanced technology as it illuminated the stadium in sync.
The sight of a dove at the PyeongChang Winter Games meant more than a symbol of peace this year. From the day the Olympic torch was carried through Seoul by a drone, South Korea has been making a statement of its pursuit to lead in future technology. The dove stunt was powered by a technology less glamorous but with far more powerful implications: 5G, a mobile connection that promises data processing speeds 100 times faster than its predecessor, fourth-generation LTE — and it’s expected to become widespread in developed countries including South Korea starting next year.
It will be a costly investment for the U.S., which struggles with large areas lacking connectivity. But the technology will become increasingly important in the Internet of Things revolution as we continue to connect mobile apps to our cars, drones, home devices and other…things. South Korea, already one of the world’s leaders in internet speeds, hopes its nationwide adoption of 5G will set a precedent for how the technology will change daily life around the world.
For society, this means much more than fast internet speeds. Kwak Phil Geun, a researcher at the Korea Testing Laboratory, says 5G will be the core infrastructure technology that drives adoption of other technologies such as autonomous vehicles, IoT and virtual or augmented reality. It could also allow people to fly drones to or control robots at disaster sites, transfer high-quality video data for virtual reality, and ramp up data storage for mobile cloud services. “Rather than 5G itself, it’s these technologies that will impact life in Korea. 5G is more of an underlying technology that materializes them,” he says.
The world’s telecom giants including Verizon, Huawei and Ericsson have been racing to unveil the world’s first 5G, but on the occasion of the PyeongChang Olympics, South Korea claimed the bragging right for the first large-scale pilot service. Its provider, local telecom giant and Olympic sponsor KT, plans to roll out the tech nationwide by the latter half of 2019, according to company vice president Eunmi Sung.
While the peace dove was an extravagant showing of 5G’s capabilities, the technology will creep into our lives in much more practical ways, as showcased on PyeongChang’s sidelines.
While in the U.S. some cross-country buses are seen as a cheap or subpar mode of transportation, in South Korea they’re as classy a ride as you saw in Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video (disco ball usually not included). KT wants to ramp up the experience with 5G-powered broadband download speeds, virtual landscapes and holograms, and live broadcasting capabilities, giving users more options to work and play during their journey.
Those features are neat, but in the bigger picture it means buses can be equipped with self-driving technology. With 5G’s ultrahigh speeds and responsiveness, a car’s control system equipped with ultrahigh-precision censoring and GPS location only possible with such fast internet speeds could better anticipate traffic and car accidents, making the experience safer especially for autonomous vehicles. That will be quickly critical for South Korea, which, although it only began handing out open-road testing permits last year, hopes to commercialize Level 3 autonomous vehicles by 2020.
One of the most Olympic efforts to make the futuristic tech more tangible was to bring it into the viewing experience. “Immersive broadcasting” uses 5G-powered gadgets like cameras, communication equipment and sensors attached onto players, sports gear and arenas, so that viewers can experience the game on their mobile apps. However, since most phones are not equipped for 5G technology, spectators’ experience was limited to the test phones at the PyeongChang Games.
One of the coolest programs was Interactive Time Slice, which used 100 cameras fitted around the Pyeongchang ice arena to allow for 360-degree instant replay and zooming. It turns the concept of video game replays into reality, an ideal fit for sports like figure skating and short track. While watching a figure skater perform a jump, you would be able to pause and view the move from different angles. This may have major implications for the future of tech-assisted judging and 4-D entertainment.
Other programs allow users to track individual athletes in events like bobsleigh, ski jump or cross-country skiing who are fitted with GPS trackers or cameras to share their location or view. Viewers will be able to closely follow their favorite athlete rather than merely the broadcasters’ coverage of the front line.
Aside from Intel’s elegant drone show and the peace dove gracing PyeongChang, South Korea is investing seriously — over $1 billion — into unmanned vehicle tech for the next five years. While Amazon and Google are testing out drone technology for deliveries, they’re running into logistical and regulatory roadblocks.
But South Korea, covering a much smaller area, is already fully wired from the metropolis Seoul to the remotest regions. KT says it has tested the tech with a bus driver picking up a drone-delivered package from a mailbox at a bus route.
If 5G is rolled out nationwide, drones can hypothetically fly anywhere in the country, Sung says. That will be especially critical for bypassing road traffic in an age when online and mobile shopping is becoming more competitive in South Korea, a $37 billion industry for e-commerce.
The 5G Challenge
For now, the features showcased at the Pyeongchang Olympics will be folded away until the next show — KT will be showcasing a wireless VR game at this month’s Mobile World Congress, where other tech giants like Intel will also be talking up their 5G game.
Until 5G can be rolled out en masse, these gadgets are merely parlor tricks, but Kwak from the Korea Testing Laboratory believes commercialization is finally within reach by late 2019 or early 2020.
A major challenge is to create a new global standard for all businesses to conform to, ensuring that the service actually reaches you. At the Olympics, KT provides 5G network, Intel provides 5G platform and Samsung provides 5G tablet to provide the full supply chain. But in the real world, the process is still under debate. Kwak thinks the “most promising” candidate to push the winning standard is not KT, but an international group called 3GPP. After that, the tech will be refined to become even faster, he says.
South Korea is expected to announce its 5G spectrum sometime this year, giving KT — the only domestic telecom developing the tech — the green light to start rolling out the infrastructure nationwide, Sung says.
“KT has the intention to advance the timeline of global 5G standardization. The Olympics is a global event to showcase, so we wanted to present our trial service … and maybe it’ll help shorten the process of standardization,” she said.
Yohan Yun and Jinyoung Park contributed to this article.