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How Did Unconventional Thinking Become Part Of Our New Normal?

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1990. A new pandemic is spreading rapidly and indiscriminately across the world, and it carries a significant risk of death—in particular for older people and for those with preexisting medical conditions. Governments in the United States and elsewhere advise their citizens to work from home if possible, and to go out only for exercise and for essential supplies. How would that have worked out? How many more businesses would have closed their doors for good in a 1990 pandemic compared with what happened in 2020?

It was just over a year ago that the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, and thanks to technology, we were far better prepared than we would have been at the end of the 20th century. And one area where unconventional thinking had suddenly become the norm is with robotic and AI devices. 

Although manufacturing robots have been around for many years, autonomous robots seemed destined always to remain a technology of the future, waiting for their time to arrive. We appeared to feel slightly uneasy about machines that resemble humans too closely. But suddenly robots and drones are our friends, safely performing everyday tasks like grocery deliveries and basic personal care where human contact is not advisable.

Automating Healthcare

Wuhan, China, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 was first identified, provided one of the earliest examples of how 5G can help us cope with this sudden change. PwC reports that a dozen 5G-connected robots were used in one of the city’s hospital wards in spring 2020, tasked with taking patients’ temperatures, delivering their meals and disinfecting the facility. Not only did this mean patients received more potentially lifesaving attention, but it also ensured that healthcare workers were distanced as much as possible from the infection and that the hospital was kept safer. The speed and reliability of 5G were integral to the ability to manage the robots and schedule their tasks.

Under the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, 2020 made lesser-known use cases and modalities popular—and 5G could eventually transform these experiences in even bigger ways. Telehealth is an obvious one—not only carrying out remote video consultations, but also providing remote patient monitoring and AI-assisted diagnosis, along with the use of wearable devices and mobile apps to promote a healthier lifestyle and to give an early indication of problems like raised blood pressure or abnormal heart rhythm. The need for streamlined front-line care efforts became all too common in the wake of Covid-19. In the 5G era, first responders could benefit from broad, fast and reliable cellular connectivity to serve communities from urban to rural. For example, 5G connectivity could enhance responders’ ability to stream high-definition video footage from an incident scene to ensure appropriate resources are sent to deal with the situation. 5G could also help paramedics relay a patient’s information, vital signs and health history to a hospital to quickly coordinate care teams for potentially better outcomes.

Retail Therapy At A Distance

Robots have also begun to find “employment” in shopping malls, where they can meet and greet customers, make AI-inspired suggestions, fetch stock and take payments, to limit contact with staff. The American Marketing Association had identified this trend even before the start of the pandemic, but the incentive to accelerate it quickly became apparent. Augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality have also been used to add an extra layer of reality to online purchase decision making, particularly with large-scale domestic purchases like furniture that can now be visualized in the home setting. Forrester Research had also explored the potential impact of 5G connectivity in enabling multisensory shopping experiences using AR, which would fundamentally change the way brands and consumers interact in a brick-and-mortar retail setting, but we can now see this being extended to shopping from home. Robots have found a role in internet shopping too, providing last-mile deliveries from suppliers to the home. Technavio Research has forecast that the use of autonomous delivery robots will rise at almost 20% per year up to 2024, driven by an increase in e-commerce, with 44% of this growth set to occur in North America.

Rethinking Restaurants

During what T-Mobile’s CEO Mike Sievert called “The Year of Missing,” restaurants and bars were among the hardest-hit businesses, with as many as 110,000 American restaurants reported to have closed either permanently or long term during 2020, according to National Restaurant Association research. Those that survived were the ones that worked creatively, pivoting to takeout, delivery, online classes and pop-up locations, as well as outdoor dining. Focusing on maintaining customer relationships and good service has been key to keeping business moving. Mobile apps for ordering and paying for food, even when eating on site, could ensure minimum contact between server and customers.

Events Take To The Virtual Space

Among the experiences we’ve missed most are those that make life enjoyable—travel, sports events, theater performances, live music. The businesses that support these events have suffered massively too. Virtual platforms have developed rapidly to provide new ways for us to interact with these experiences, helping to enrich the lives of people whose physical world has shrunk immeasurable due to lockdowns. Some of these experiences could not have been created without 5G, while for others, 5G enables us to be “present” virtually from a wider range of physical locations. Mixed reality and real-time 3D video let us watch sports or theater from novel perspectives, “attend” concerts and explore faraway places in the company of a local guide, all with startling authenticity. One example is the use of 5G-powered cameras mounted on the caps of Major League Baseball players during batting practice in the run-up to last October’s Fall Classic. Fans were able to see exactly what the player could see with a real-time, 360-degree immersive view of the action.

It’s also been demonstrated that choirs and bands could perform together from distanced locations. The latency of standard video meeting software is too long to allow real-time musical collaboration, but European researchers working with a choir competition have developed a 5G platform that can replicate singing together in person.

The conference and expo industry has also turned to the use of virtual platforms—not using 5G yet, but it’s easy to see how a virtual reality headset powered by 5G might add a flavor of the real experience to the mix.

The End Of Conventional Thinking

Among the lessons we have learned in the past 12 months is that unusual times demand unconventional solutions. Taking this attitude forward as things hopefully return to their almost-normal state, we should be in great shape to take advantage of all the new ways of working that 5G promises to offer us.

What happens when you put unconventional thinking into action? We say 5G for all.