Reviewing ‘5G for Museums, Galleries and Heritage – unlocking the full potential’

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Sian Shaw

Most of us are used to 4G – so 5G is just the next version, the upgrade, right? If that’s the case, then why are people getting so excited about 5G? I decided it was time to find out…

If you are anything like me, 5G is one of those phrases that has been kicking around for a while and popping up occasionally on the news, but you wouldn’t bank on yourself explaining it accurately to a stranger. Or fully understand why it would make a difference at work. Luckily, this coincided with a free afternoon event all about 5G for museums, galleries and heritage and unlocking the full potential of this upcoming technology. Exactly the tailored approach that we busy heritage professionals need!

So, first things first, what is 5G? The message was quite simple: 5G is 4G but with higher bandwidth and lower latency. In laymen’s terms, that means more “stuff” can be downloaded or streamed at a much faster rate. This lower latency, in particular, was being described as a change that would radically disrupt the way that people will interact with technology. It’s not just faster, it’s significantly faster. And it’s coming relatively soon with predictions of most people having access to it by 2022.

In our world of dodgy, unreliable Wi-Fi over large sites, often in historical buildings, this could be a real game changer. The sell was inspirational. There was talk of synchronised reality, such as a duet being played together despite the musicians being in separate countries.  There was talk of fully immersive experiences, where devices were taken away at the door, and concerts can be run using mixed reality (such as a real-life performer combined with AR). There was talk of global storytelling, with loaned objects no longer needing to leave their organisation in order for them to be used powerfully in an exhibition on the other side of the world. Real “testbed” examples were shared as the tease of what will be possible.

The point was summed up as a metaphor: we’ve made the theatre, now it is your job to write the plays.

Inspirational talk quickly turned to discussing practicalities in a mixed room of 5G and immersive technology experts sharing tables with museum and heritage professionals of varying disciplines. I was comforted as heritage colleagues were asking the questions we all think about when new digital technology hits the market – how easy is it for visitors to use, how easy is it for staff to use, and the big one, how much will all of this cost? I was sitting on a table discussing VR & AR content production and distribution, which ended up as more of a conversation about our audience’s technological abilities, wants and needs. Assumptions by technology experts about what the average person can do, and want to do, with devices when visiting heritage sites were being quickly squashed by anecdote after anecdote. This moved on from a conversation about 5G, which is merely a tool, to what output could and should we deliver. There was definite consensus that 5G wasn’t going to give solutions for every type of visitor; it was another string in your bow for those who want to use it.

So where does that leave me? I can now do the “lift chat” about 5G and I can see how it can open up the discussion of trying new technologies, which would have previously been dismissed over Wi-Fi concerns. 5G is exciting: no one is denying that. And with more reliable, faster technology, there is undeniable potential for what museums and heritage sites can do with it. But as always with technology, it’s about the idea you have and identifying the best way to share it. Which takes me back to the theatre metaphor. We need to focus as heritage professionals on working with our audiences to write the play, and then we can work out where is the best place to perform it.

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