The GSMA’s mobile and communications trade show Mobile World Congress was held once again in Barcelona this year. A showcase for all things related to mobile, telecoms and communication tech, news from the show can have a big impact on how content is distributed in the future, as well as the kind of devices used to consume that content. Andrew Williams reports.
As well as the usual mobile technology highlights, the show also saw an unusual amount of political positioning from both network operators and content owners, against a background of broader geopolitical concerns. The result was a full array of highlights to chew over, from hardware innovations and technology to media and connectivity that will reverberate for some time to come.
Netflix’s take on entertainment platform levies
Netflix’s Greg Peters made his first public address since becoming co-CEO as part of the MWC headline keynote on February 28 November. He set out a strong position against the idea streaming services should be taxed for the additional demand they generate for ISPs.
“A tax like that could have a significant adverse effect. It would reduce investment in content, which hurts local creative communities,” Peters said.
“Broadband customers who drive this increased usage already pay for the development of [ISPs’] network through their subscription fees. That’s the service they’re buying when they sign up for an ISP. Requiring entertainment companies, both streamers and broadcasters, to pay more on top of that would mean ISPs effectively are charging twice for the same infrastructure.
“Netflix’s operating margins are much lower than British Telecom or Deutsche Telekom. Se we could just as easily argue that network operators should pay entertainment companies to help with the cost out our content, which is of course exactly what happened under the old pay TV model, but we are not asking for that.”
Peters also highlighted that Netflix has halved its bitrate between 2015 and 2020, thanks to improved encoding technology. He became Netflix Co-CEO alongside Ted Sarandos in January 2023, after Reed Hastings stepped down.
A 5G emergency broadcast system
Rohde & Schwarz demonstrated a specialised form of 5G broadcast at MWC 2023, as part of a partnership with Qualcomm and China’s Academy of Broadcasting Science (ABS).
It is designed primarily for natural disaster response scenarios, where the 5G broadcast system can “trigger” mobile devices, sending out emergency messages across a wide area.
Qualcomm calls it the “world’s first interactive multimedia emergency 5G broadcast demonstration”, and it uses an app developed by China’s ABS. This app can house VOD content as well as live TV, and the demo of the tech featured channels including Canal 24h.
Spanish telecoms company Cellnex setup the necessary infrastructure for the MWC demo on the show floor itself, using a transmitter from Rohde Schwarz and Ateme encoding equipment.
Read more 5G in broadcast: 5G TV online
3D content makes a slight return
MWC saw a resurrection of a format often considered largely retired — 3D. ZTE showed the Nubia Pad 3D, a 12.4-inch tablet with a glasses-free 3D screen.
Its specialised display can present two images at once, each directed at one eye. The Nubia Pad 3D also has head tracking, which dramatically increases the 3D sweet spot, allowing for a more natural experience.
This tablet’s technology is made by Leia, which produces its own variant of the Nubia Pad 3D, called the Leia Pad 2.
But when 3D movies like the Avatar: The Way of Water are so rare, where is the ZTE Nubia Pad 3D’s content to come from? There are multiple sources.
The tablet has a 3D camera array on its back, using two camera sensors to judge the parallax effect. It includes “AI” software that converts 2D content into 3D, a selection of 3D models ready to be played with and manipulated, and AI image generation from Stable Diffusion. Users can input prompts to generate images, which are then “upscaled” into three dimensions
Video and AR glasses
ZTE showed off another novel way to view consumer content, in the Nubia Neovision Glass. These look a little like oversized mirrored sunglasses, but situate a high pixel density display in front of each eye.
Lenses then simulate the effect of a 120-inch display sat 4m away. Such consumer-focused video glasses have been available for well over a decade, from companies including Sony and Vuzix, among others. Progress is found in making these headsets more appealing to wear, lowering weight and bulk while also benefiting from the improved image quality of newer-generation display panels.
The Nubia Neovision Glass weigh just 79g, and display full HD resolution content on a display layer that sits behind the outer-most reflective layer. It’s capable of searing 1800-nit brightness. This pair of video glasses was made in partnership with TQSKY, which markets a similar design as the TQSKY T1.
It is augmented reality (AR) glasses that offer a more dynamic vision of how tech might change how people interface with content in the years to come, though. While early reports suggest Apple’s mixed reality headset, expected later this year, will fully occlude the wearer’s vision, Xiaomi’s AR glasses prototype uses electrochromic glass, letting the lenses modulate between being translucent and opaque.
Cameras sit to either end of the glasses’ front, allowing for passthrough vision of the outside world when normal vision is obscured. Xiaomi says the miniLED displays inside are of such high pixel density they are only a fraction off the level where individual pixels can no longer be distinguished — at 58 pixels per degree.
These forms of augmented reality and smartglasses-like designs are not new. Microsoft’s HoloLens headset was released in 2016, for example. However, there’s a sense of being in transition in this area of tech, that it has yet to find a mainstream audience in the way virtual reality headsets like the Meta Quest 2 have.
From foldable displays to rollable ones
However, innovation and ambition thrive in these nascent stages. MWC also saw Lenovo and its sub-brand Motorola branch out from foldable screen devices to rollable ones. The company has functioning prototypes of both a rollable phone, the RIZR, and a laptop with a screen that can grow much taller than the standard laptop aspect ratio.
A motor extends the flexible screen in each case. And the Motorola RIZR can automatically extend its screen when, for example, held in portrait and streaming content from a VOD app like YouTube. When not extended to 6.5 inches the RIZR has a 5-inch screen, with a secondary area on the back, which can be used as a selfie preview and for notifications.
Lenovo has no current plans to release the RIZR, but it is the most complete-feeling experimentation with rollable display tech in a phone to date.
A more sustainable kind of consumer tech
Consumer tech brands’ concerns about sustainability are starting to trump the appeal of ingrained obsolescence. Nokia has puts this into practice in the G22, a phone made to be easily repairable, by the owner and without specialist tools.
Nokia has partnered with iFixit to offer kits for two of the most common issues — damaged screen and aged batteries. Battery repair kits with the required basic tools cost 30 Euro, and let just about anyone avoid upgrading their phone because of an ageing battery.
A little manual dexterity is all that is required, as the process does involve a couple of small screws and a pair of ribbon cables. However, it’s an order of magnitude easier than attempting to replace an iPhone’s battery. Five minutes or so is all it takes for a battery replacement, a screen replacement just a little longer. Crucial to this design, The Nokia G22 doesn’t have a glued-in casing, allowing it to be unclipped with the help of something as simple as a guitar plectrum.
MWC 2023 was held from 27 February to March 2 in Barcelona.
Read more Netflix at MWC