This was my first time attending Mobile World Congress, and it was not what I expected.
I've been aware of MWC for a long time but had previously chosen to follow developments from afar. This year, however, I decided to see for myself what was taking place and was surprised when what I saw transcended mobile and was more reflective of what I can only describe as a European CES.
Sure, there are booths with hundreds of smartphone handsets on display, but the tendency is to walk straight past these to the huge stands from the tech giants demonstrating autonomous driving, smart cities, virtual reality, drones and artificial intelligence – technologies that are completely transforming the world around us on a day-to-day basis.
Virtual reality stands out here by sheer volume, with nearly every big stand using the technology in showcases and demonstrations – either to wow us and sell us VR itself or to use it to demonstrate the benefits of other technologies.
It's clear from wandering through the vast halls of the Fira Gran Via that there is far more at stake in the success of VR than just headset manufacturers and game developers. The companies behind a whole ecosystem of technologies are banking on the mainstream success of VR to help propel sales of their own piece of the jigsaw.
These are the key trends that I can see exploding this year following MWC:
VR and 5G
VR was everywhere you looked this year and was so much more than just new headsets, with demonstrations highlighting its use in chipsets, 5G networks and data science. It is clear from walking around that 5G – the telecom infrastructure that can deal with the wave of data and provides the bandwidth that is needed to make everything run smoothly – will be coming soon.
Intel demonstrated streaming live 8K 360 videos over a localised 5G network into a VR headset – an impressive showcase of the benefits of 5G networks. Beyond Intel, VR headsets were present in nearly all the big tech stands, with Qualcomm, IBM, Google and HTC all featuring VR heavily.
Smart cities and autonomous driving
There were a number of smart cities, internet of things and autonomous driving solutions on display which are set to have an enormous impact on the world of artificial intelligence. That standout event, for me, was the Intel stand where it showed how 5G will enable societal improvements such as autonomous driving, smart and connected cities and media. IBM had a significant presence as well, alongside Ford, which was also featuring a strong ‘future cities’ story.
Many automotive manufacturers had chosen MWC as a platform to demonstrate new concepts. Peugeot presented its Instinct concept car which adjusts its driving style based on data from your connected devices. This would include an understanding of your recent activities, even your mood, with the car able to drive accordingly.
A huge amount is going on all around us – big tech companies are forming partnerships and working directly with cities to put smart city technology to the test. Again, Intel had a strong presence here – demonstrating cameras and sensors in street pylons about to be deployed in San Diego. The smart environment is closer than we think, and we may well not notice it building up around us.
I had expected to see more about ‘voice’ – Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Assistant. CES featured a lot of 'Alexa-enabled' stories, but these were less obvious at MWC if they were here at all. Voice has been such a high-impact trend that this was something of a surprise to me.
Apparently, some phones were released as well at MWC, but for me they rather got lost in the glare of our AI and VR-enabled future...
Andy Hood is head of emerging technologies at AKQA