AT&T: 5G and edge compute are a match made for AR, VR gaming

From left, AT&T's Igal Elbaz, Intel's Caroline Chan, Microsoft Azure's Rokeya Jones and Vapor IO's Cole Crawford discuss edge compute at the AT&T Spark conference. (FierceTelecom)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—AT&T sees the future of gaming, and it's where 5G networks and edge compute meet to provision augmented reality and virtual reality.  

AT&T showcased the power of 5G and edge compute during its Spark conference in San Francisco with a demonstration by Ericsson and NVIDIA that showed "Shadow of the Tomb Raider." Using AT&T's edge network, the demo, which featured resolution of 1920 by 1080, had 16 milliseconds of delay between the laptop and AT&T's data center in Santa Clara using the telco's edge network.

"That's really powerful, I mean look at the clarity; it's just so real-like," said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer of AT&T, who was onstage with Paul Bommarito, vice president of Americas Enterprise Sales for NVIDIA, during the demonstration. "That's pretty amazing."

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NVIDIA's GeForce Now is a cloud-based gaming system that's available in beta in the U.S. and Europe.

"So in the past to get this level of experience, you would need a workstation with a graphics processor costing a few thousand dollars," said Bommarito. "With GeForce Now and the graphics acceleration taking place in the cloud, you can get that level of beautiful experience on a $200 laptop. I think the best thing is 5G. If you think about that mobility capability of this high-bandwidth, low-latency network, the ability to have this gaming experience anytime, anyplace, anywhere, with GeForce Now on any device, our customers are going to love it."

Earlier this year, AT&T Foundry launched an edge computing test zone in Palo Alto, California, to kick the tires on augmented reality, virtual reality, and cloud-driven gaming.

"We launched it because we wanted to create a real-world environment and a collaborative ecosystem that can tackle some of the business and technical challenges that this technology represents," said Igal Elbaz, senior vice president of wireless technology, during another panel discussion at Spark. "We're rolling out 5G as the first wireless system that was born in the cloud, and now we can take advantage of what I consider to be one of the most disruptive technologies to come along in years: edge computing.

"Now you can think about placing low-latency, complex application and computation power closer to the users. By improving the functionality and the user experience, we can actually unleash some of the new business models that we all talk and hear about like AR, VR, self-driving cars, drones, mobile gaming, and others."

The first phase of the edge computing test zone was to look at how improved network performance metrics, such as delay and packet jitter, would translate to improvements in application performance metrics, such as motion-to-photon latency and frame loss, yielding a better experience for the end user. AT&T found that one of the biggest benefits of edge computing came from delay predictability rather than the amount of delay itself.

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"We are excited about how AR and VR gaming can run on edge platforms," Elbaz said. "As you probably know, latency is a real challenge for immersive mobile cloud gaming. We also learned and discovered the importance of the balance between low latency and how you build your AR development pipeline as it relates to encoding and decoding of the content that runs through the network."

As part of the second phase, AT&T Foundry is expanding its edge test zone footprint to cover all of the San Francisco Bay Area, allowing for increased application mobility and broader collaboration potential.

In addition to Ericsson and NVIDIA, Intel and Microsoft also worked with AT&T at the Palo Alto Foundry, but Elbaz said AT&T was actively looking for more companies to explore the use cases of edge computing.

"We are looking for companies with goals and challenging ideas," he said. "Together, we want to explore the art of the possible, and we want to make the Palo Alto Foundry the first place to go and explore this."

Defining edge compute

Elbaz started off his panel discussion by asking the participants what their definition of edge computing was. Cole Crawford, founder and CEO of Vapor IO, said the edge "was the meeting room of wireline and wireless worlds."

"I think that's where AT&T meets the backbone of the internet and all of the content providers that are enabling these new use cases," Crawford added.

Microsoft Azure's Rokeya Jones said edge compute "is the enabler that will allow infinite possibilities around what we can do with technologies."

"We focus on merging the physical and the virtual networks and making sure we can enable or bring our intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge together to bring forth a lot of opportunities for enterprise, startups and new developers to come to," she said.

Intel's Caroline Chan said the edge could be on premises or on a network.

"So for us, we look at the edge as a way to put the compute platform where the telco reach is in order to take advantage of the location, the lower latency, the higher bandwidth, and, most importantly, the privacy that an enterprise desires and in many cases requires," she said. "Where there is a strong ROI like savings on location-based services, that's where the edge is."