There’s nothing special about 4g itself, it’s just a better mobile data connection. ‘Home Wifi speeds when you are out and about’ is the simple way to describe it. The services that become possible on 4g make it really interesting, and the availability of wifi-like connections away from the home opens up creative possibilities that go beyond raw bandwidth. To realise these requires imagination – something that the network operators, who are currently leading the 4g charge, don’t really have in their toolbox.
By the way, if you really want to get all excited about gigabits per second and bandwidth, then check out this Gizmodo article, which covers all of the ‘under the hood’ stuff, and should tell you all you need to know about the speed aspects of 4g. However, speed itself doesn’t interest me – you see, it’s not how fast your data connection is, it’s what you do with it that counts.
And what to do with that big mobile data pipe is less apparent right now. EE, who are first to market with 4g in the UK, sell their consumer service around the ability to stream media (TV, video and music) and multi-player gaming.
If this doesn’t sound exciting, it’s because it isn’t. We can do all of that via wifi and we were meant to be able to do all of that on 3g. The fact is we can’t. 3g is flaky, especially in cities. People still seem to be in denial about how hit and miss streaming media on 3g is. I’ve spoken to Music execs, Youtube officials and marketers, and they are all happy to promote streaming media via mobile networks. The reality is that the user experience via 3g is pretty poor, unless you stand still, outside. Chances are your music or video, especially if you are on the move, is going to cut out and stutter over 3g.
V-er y a nno y i g.
So 4g cures that problem. Brilliant. But is that really a leap forward? Essentially we are being given what we thought we already had. A bit like Tesco’s Finest range – consumers pay more to bring the product up to scratch.
That’s enough cynicism. I am actually excited by 4g, just not the way it is being sold or imagined right now. What is possible when you have high bandwidth everywhere is not just wifi everywhere, it actually opens up modes of accessing content that weren’t possible before.
Perhaps the most obvious is location based content. If you can stream media anywhere, then rather than just offer standard media on the go, you can actually offer media that is relevant to where you are.
Some of the more prosaic uses might be always-on audio information for tourists in multiple languages or reliable audio building access and walking instructions for the blind and visually impaired.
Getting more creative, location based music streaming allows you to soundtrack cities, spaces and routes and create interactive geo-fenced radio stations and playlists, think ‘Spotify Places’, or ‘TomTom with Music’.
4g also allows you to start to get more inspired and meaningful with other augmented reality experiences. High bandwidth everywhere allows for low-latency real-time overlay of rich media. Right now AR has been reduced to clunkly ‘bring this poster to life’ marketing pointlessness, but real-time image, location and audio recognition could allow you to add instant meaning and layers to otherwise foreign objects, languages, sounds and areas.
4g also works well inside buildings, so interactive mapping and augmentation of public and private spaces can be set free of wifi. I am sure we will see new content platforms emerge that allow this process to be democratised (and set free of Google maps). And if we must think marketing, then 4g allows OOH advertising to come to life in many more ways than is currently possible, simply because the extra bandwidth allows media activation and augmentation to be instantaneous, rather than onerous.
As I said at the start of the article, it’s no longer going to be network speeds that hold us back from creating truly mobile services, it’s our imagination. Watching iPlayer in the park is just the start, not the pinnacle, of 4g ambition.