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The personalized shopping experience to be transformed with 5G, thanks to edge compute

5G will operate at the latency, speed, and capacity of human senses – this opens up many possibilities for transformative 5G retail experiences for shoppers

How might 5G transform the retail shopping experience? Experience is the key word. Rather than just selling products, leading retailers are expected to deliver interactive services and experiences and ongoing customer engagement. 

Now, imagine you’re shopping for new skis and you can try them out in a hyper-real test run down the piste through a virtual reality headset. This type of realistic experience will be made possible by 5G’s ability to almost instantaneously transmit cloud-based information to mobile devices in a way that has not been feasible before.

The multi-access edge computing (MEC, or mobile edge compute) aspect of 5G—bringing compute really close to the end users—makes it possible to do some really interesting things with personalization and experience enhancements!

And it’s not just sexy augmented reality applications and big data insights that will alter brand-consumer interactions in the retail sector, as 5G-enabled IoT services and sensors will also drive improved logistics and supply-chain optimization. However, if you do want to preview some cool augmented reality, catch Anon on Netflix this weekend, or check out the unbelievably real-world version of augmented vision, Mojo Vision.

Source: Anon movie, Netflix

Source: Anon movie, Netflix

How 5G and edge computing combine to deliver a unique retail experience

A 5G model for a retail location can enable augmented reality that involves extremely low-latency services. A typical WiFi or 4G mobile connection can’t deliver this type of experience at the speed of human senses. But 5G could. 

Imagine this scenario: A person is walking down the street, or through a mall, doing some window shopping. Their eye is caught by a store window display with a large, high-definition video screen. Next to this is a mannequin dressed in a haute couture. The person pauses in front of the screen and there is a life-size image of them, wearing the outfit! 

5G retail example diagram
Source: Accedian

The technology components involved, individually, are nothing remarkable: a camera (to capture a picture of the shopper), compute power in the cloud (to combine the shopper’s picture with a picture of the outfit), and a high-definition screen (to display the composite image). 

It’s how—and where—they come together that is new and remarkable. Locating the compute really close to the location of the shopper (the MEC) is what makes it possible to do all this in real time… literally real time! This has to be done using a client-server model, but with the application and processing associated with it located very close to each other.  

Retailers need ‘something new’ to draw shoppers into stores and 5G mobile operators see an opportunity

It’s no secret that the retail sector is struggling with the costs of running physical stores and the impact of online shopping. Still, there’s nothing like the in-store environment to touch, feel and sample products, receive expert advice, and get the full ‘retail experience.’ But, the experience of shopping in a physical store has to be a lot more compelling to beat the convenience of buying from your laptop (in your pajamas, on the couch, with your cat…).

With 5G, retailers will be able to personalize experiences a lot more by gathering unique insights based on connected 5G consumer and IoT device data to refine everything from their supply chain operations, real-time merchandising messaging and promotions, personalised signage, in-store and in-app communications, facial recognition, and VR- or AR-enabled services, like the aforementioned adaptive “magic mirrors”.

And, in the post-purchase lifecycle, the ability for consumers to get instant connectivity to engage customer service, a video call and AR-augmented assistance for service will become more commonplace. If shoppers have the option of quickly having a video conversation with a remote employee who actually knew what they were talking about, would they hit the “talk” button in the store? Absolutely.  

What are the challenges of meeting performance requirements for 5G retail applications?

We have had an idea in telecoms around the 5 9’s reliability of network nodes. With 5G, we live in a world of 6 9’s confidence in the quality of user (application) experience. This is a completely different beast.   

That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. That may not seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for the flash on a normal camera. Imagine using augmented vision and dealing with serious lag causing double vision—now that’s a headache (or an accident) waiting to happen!

But how will operators monitor, manage, and prove the sustained low-latency performance and bandwidth to enable 5G retail services? Given the sheer number of simultaneous shoppers and potential retailers involved, the only winning strategy must be built on an extremely efficient, automated performance management process. 

Several factors must be considered:

  • Performance visibility into every endpoint, segment, and slice 
  • Ability to analyze underlay and overlay service layers
  • Real-time analytics to correlate network performance and end user experience

A multi-layer monitoring approach is obviously required. This will incorporate machine learning capabilities that interact with orchestrators to automate resource allocation for each client and game running on the cloud.  

The basic requirements are:

  • Mostly software-based data collection (additional hardware only where existing architecture lacks key performance monitoring standards support)
  • Measure performance down to 1 millisecond granularity
  • Correlate data from multiple vendors/sources

With the imminent arrival of 5G, retail brands should therefore be asking themselves “are we ready” and “what can the future look like for our in-store experiences, logistics and most importantly, our customer service?”

Interested in more 5G use cases and killer app discussions? Check out our recent blog on Gaming-as-a-service.