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Virtual strap-ons have me feeling a little queasy

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Mobile World Congress gives us all an idea of what to expect in the mobile tech world. Here are three lessons I learned this year.

Virtual reality headsets are going nowhere

Remember Google Glass? For two years, the world oohed and aahed at the computer-camera goggles before realising that no-one really wanted to use them.

This year, it's virtual reality headsets. The massive cranial strap-ons are given attention partly because Facebook bought Oculus Rift for €3bn and partly because we just like to have gadgets-of-the-future.

At Mobile World Congress, phone-maker HTC announced a new headset called Vive, which itself is a collaboration with an existing VR manufacturer Valve. The device is meant to work mainly with video games and, when worn, gives you a sense of immersion that otherwise can't really be achieved.

Samsung launched its own VR accessory - a strap-on with a slot for its new high-end S6 smartphone - that attempts to do the same thing with your existing smartphones. But virtual reality headsets have two main problems. First, they make you vomit. Many reviewers (and I am one of them) can't physically keep a pair on for more than a few minutes because of this - they're so realistic that they induce nausea.

Manufacturers are trying to ameliorate this by increasing the 'frames per second' quotient from 60 to 90. But they are still only for those with iron stomachs which, given that they are niche instruments to begin with, makes the market very small.

The second problem is that there are not serious usage aspirations outside gaming. Movies? Sorry, but the epic 3D flop taught us that we really don't like to strap things on to our heads when relaxing with a film.

And even within the gaming sector, the potential revenue is unsure. The overall global gaming market may be worth over €50bn a year, but that includes everything from Candy Crush to World of Warcraft.

Will console or PC gamers flock to headsets for extra oomph? Some probably will. But it's hard to proclaim such gadgets as futuristic sure things.

Non-Apple smartwatches are still a sideshow

Are you a Pebble player or a Moto 360 man? G-Watch or Sony SW3? Apparently it doesn't really matter. Because almost none of you are buying the digital timepiece gadgets.

Although 4.6 million connected wrist devices were sold last year, only 760,000 of them were Android Wear models. These come closest to what our understanding of a 'smartwatch' is, with custom apps and integrated connections to the web and to our phones. There were a few models on display at Mobile World Congress, notable Huawei's almost-elegant Watch and LG's Urbane LTE. Like Motorola's Moto 360, both have opted for circular 1.4-inch screens to simulate classically designed watches.

So why aren't people flocking to these mini-computers in the same way they took to touchscreen phones? It may be that the case so far for apps on phones hasn't been made yet. Or that people baulk at the thought of having to recharge the device every day. Or it could be that people are simply holding off until tomorrow, when Apple is expected to launch its own much-anticipated watch (called Watch).

But even the watches that have been purchased have a dubious usage rate. Some industry reports indicate that smartwatches are like gym memberships. People buy them as part of a get-better programme but abandon them after a month or two.

5G is coming

Just as you were getting used to the idea of 4G (or even 3G, depending on which part of Ireland you live in), there's a new speed standard coming down the line.

The world's biggest mobile operators have come out with a roadmap for 5G that will see trials in 2018 and "commercial offerings" in 2020. That means that agencies such as Comreg have to start planning spectrum and licensing issues pretty soon.

It also may mean a lot more money circling around the ecosystem, with the last round of 4G licence auctions netting €850m for the Irish taxpayer.

For users, the goal is a minimum of 50Mbs and premium speeds of up to 1,000Mbs. (4G in Ireland delivers between 10Mbs and 30Mbs, depending on how many people are on the network at any one time, while 3G usually delivers 1Mbs to 5Mbs.)

For operators, it means that a fresh cycle of investment is already looking on the horizon, possibly running into hundreds of millions of euro again. Although unless 5G is promising genuine fibre-replacement and huge backhaul capacity, there is little chance operators will stump up the massive sums they did before.

Sunday Indo Business