With South Korea set to lead the world when it launches 5G mobile telecommunication services nationwide on Friday, the country’s two leading telcos offered a glimpse of things to come with pre-launch previews on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This is the future and it is dazzling. You can watch big-screen cinema in the luxury of a plush virtual living room, make an avatar of yourself while chatting with friends, marvel at sporting action from the players’ viewpoint, courtesy of a 360-degree necklace camera – and even introduce a dragon to a baseball game.

5G boasts data speeds of up to 2.7 gigabytes per second – dozens of time faster than existing services, enabling warp-speed transmission of high-definition content, without latency. Though it is predicted to be a game changer in industries as diverse as automotives – 5G networks will permit the operation of autonomous vehicles – and medicine – 5G enables remote, virtual-reality assisted surgeries – South Korea’s two major service providers, SKT and KT, focused heavily on the consumer experience ahead of the service rollout.

D-day is Friday, when 5G-enabled Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphones go on sale. An LG model calibrated for 5G is expected to hit the market in June.

Stars aligned

SKT held a glitzy “Launch Showcase” on Wednesday, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds of reporters, analysts and staffers in the lobby of its Seoul HQ, the SKT Tower, itself shaped like a giant mobile handset.

SKT CEO Park Jung-ho appeared on stage for the event, welcoming the audience – but on a giant screen behind him, he spoke while standing next to a virtual astronaut landing on the moon, signifying an “eagle has landed” moment for mobile.

After Park delivered his spiel, it was celebrities – ice-skating sensation Kim Yu-na, K-pop boy band EXO, online-gaming superstar Faker and local comedians – who took front and center stage. The key apps were clearly virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

Why watch a baseball game in boring old reality when you can watch in it virtual reality? Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Donning VR headsets, two comedians attended a real baseball game from a spacious virtual living room. Things then shifted to augmented AR as a (digital) dragon landed in the (real) stadium.

Kai, a member of EXO known for his gaming prowess, dueled with Faker in a shooter game fought over VR headsets; the action was beamed live onto a giant LED screen. Perhaps surprisingly, Faker – a member of the SKT gaming team – lost. “In the past there was a bit of disconnection,” he said, post-game, referring to 5G’s lack of latency. “But with 5G, that is no longer the case.”

SKT executive vice-president Yoon Yong-chul said he expected 5G to be the magic bullet that would ignite VR and AR services – be they hardware makers of headsets, or content providers.

SKT, the leading mobile service provider in what is arguably the world’s most wired and wireless country, has established 34,000 base stations and will launch coverage in 85 towns and cities nationwide, as well as in university districts, bullet trains, sports stadia, expressways, subway lines – even beaches.

Monthly service charges will be between 55,000 won ($48) and 125,000 won ($100) per month. For that, users can anticipate 8,000 different forms of content – a Harry Potter AR game, K-pop VR content (fans can feel “as is their favorite idol star is standing right in front of them”), virtual tours of famous art galleries worldwide and 360 degrees trips of 20 world cities.

By the end of the year the company hopes to have 1 million 5G subscribers, an SKT official said.

Korea’s leading telco SKT will lead the 5G charge from its mobile phone-shaped HQ. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia TImes

5G ups apps

The day before, KT, Korea’s number two service provider, showcased a range of apps that will be bundled in its 5G service.

“Real 360” is a necklace-style 360-degree camera with live-streaming capability. As it is hands-free, it enables vivid, first-person footage, from a sportsperson in the middle of a game. It could revolutionize broadcast coverage of sports. If placed around the throat of Lionel Messi, for example, viewers could get his view – either live or in replays – as he charges and jinks toward the goal mouth – and then catch the same action from the goalkeeper’s perspective.

If virtual sports are more your thing, “e-sports live” divides a smartphone screen into five panels, enabling viewers to watch a  multiplayer e-sport game from the perspective of five different players at the same time.

Gaming nerds will be able to watch a single game from the perspective of five different players at once. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

“Giga Live TV” is a VR app (and headset, which costs 470,000 won) which connects wirelessly to devices. Inside the VR, the user is in a spacious, plush sitting room with a huge screen on the wall. Via the screen, the viewer can watch streamed content – movies, sports, games, concerts, etc. For users who live in tiny apartments, the app presents an escape from a dreary everyday reality into a luxurious virtual reality.

Like SKT, KT made clear that gamers would be major beneficiaries of 5G.

“We are currently working with a lot of gaming companies making 5G connected games and VR games,” said Lee Ji-young, a spokesperson with KT. “With your mobile phone you can enjoy a lot of things in an instant, like streaming games.”

That would mean rather than downloading a game app, it could be instantly streamed from a computer placed in a data center that plays the game remotely.

And of course, there is personalization. “Narle” is an app which creates instant avatars. Take a selfie, and the app creates an avatar of you. You can virtually dress if how you like, and it will follow your actual facial expressions and movements as you speak on video chats with friends.

Real me, virtual me: Reporters walk past an LED screen showing off an avatar production app at the KT HQ in Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Innovation after dissemination

And last week, KT erected a giant tent in Gwanghwamun Plaza, in Seoul’s city center, showcasing further apps. Some, however, made clear that 5G is still in its very early stages.

One demo featured a wall encased in a net, where you can play a variety of games that a camera registered. “With this machine, you can compete with other people in different countries in real time,” Ko Kyung-kon, CEO of RPO Planets, said. “The camera detects people’s motions and for that speed is important… so we believe 5G technology is very important.”

He showed a video where schools in four different countries competed against each other, in real time. The kids ran around indoor obstacle courses and threw balls against the wall, which was lit up by the projector and keeping score.

But while 5G allows devices to communicate faster than ever before, much hardware can’t keep up. The cameras that RPO Planets used were old X-box Kinects – video game console devices – that can’t leverage the speeds of 5G. But new hardware will become available, Ko vowed.

As with preceding innovations, 5G development will accelerate once its technologies become mainstream and available to entrepreneurs and developers worldwide, Lee said.

Ahead of Friday’s launch, a sign in a mobile teleco shop in Seoul says ‘Galaxy S10 5G pre-order.’ Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times