Livestreaming. Videoconferencing. E-learning. Virtual doctor appointments. While none of these technologies are new, right now, they’re approaching essential.
Humans have been connecting and streaming online for years, but the mass adoption of work-from-home and social distancing policies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed livestreaming and videoconferencing from something optional and convenient into something crucial for day-to-day communications for many.
Scrambling to move online
Millions of workers suddenly transitioning to their living rooms as a workspace are clearing store shelves of laptops, monitors, keyboards and webcams, while teachers and students turn to platforms like YouTube Live, Twitch and Zoom to keep up with the curriculum.
Governments are jumping aboard too. In the U.S., the White House is streaming daily briefings on the evolving COVID-19 situation, while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just announced a $200 million telehealth plan to help manage the logistical challenges faced by the country’s health system. In Japan, Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, is livestreaming her press conferences and posting video messages in multiple languages on the official metropolitan government video channel.
The trend has taken hold in the entertainment industry as well. News programs in Japan, famous for packing pundits into the studio, have shifted dramatically to accommodate experts presenting from home via videoconferencing technology. Global pop stars are joining the livestream party too. On April 18, Global Citizen and Lady Gaga are collaborating to stream a special coronavirus relief event called “One World: Together At Home.” The event, which will be hosted by U.S. late night comedians Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, will feature an A-list musical lineup of Billie Eilish, Lizzo, J Balvin, Elton John, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Kacey Musgraves and more.
Similarly, as press conferences and large gatherings become unviable, many companies have turned to livestreaming to cover major events and announcements: On March 3, Rakuten Mobile streamed a highly anticipated event unveiling the details of its mobile plan on a variety of platforms including Twitter, where it broke a Japan record for views of a company livestream. On the fashion front, Shanghai Fashion Week successfully pulled-off a digital only event in March, while Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo plans to live-stream its FW20 event later this month.
Once you go 5G…
“We can expect to see livestreaming and videoconferencing technology improve significantly with the arrival of 5G,” says Takefumi Kato, a strategic planner in Rakuten Mobile’s Technology Strategy Department who specializes in 5G.
“You’ve probably experienced unstable video quality and audio problems when conferencing before,” Kato explains. “Those problems will be a thing of a past. In the age of 5G, because networks will be able to handle so much more data at once, our devices will no longer be bottlenecked by the speed of the network.”
The instantaneous nature of 5G networking is another major selling point. “One crucial aspect of 5G networks is multi-access edge (MEC) computing. MEC technology will allow us to livestream or conference regardless of where we are—at home, in the office, on vacation overseas—with minimal latency.”
But 5G will bring about more than just great picture and audio quality, Kato says. “We can also expect peripheral video technologies such as VR, AR and XR to be developed as well,” — a concept Rakuten recently demonstrated with an 8K 360-degree VR livestream in late 2018.
Rakutenians meet online
Videoconferencing has played a central role in connecting Rakuten’s dozens of global offices for the better part of the past decade. A unified videoconferencing system has been the glue connecting Rakuten’s many global businesses while keeping travel costs for the most essential occasions.
At the recent Rakuten Technology Conference (which, coincidentally, is also streamed live each year from a number of satellite locations) Rakuten’s Corporate IT Department General Manager Kaoru Tanaka spoke at length (alongside two colleagues joining via video link) about overcoming the challenges the medium presents for collaboration.
“With videoconferencing, it’s sometimes easy to create a kind of us-and-them culture. If you have a meeting which connects one room or group with another, it’s so easy to have a little chat after turning off the video,” she explained.
To keep the team together, it’s up to leaders to step up and forge those personal bonds across the distance. “You need to give feedback one-on-one to build a trust-filled relationship, just as if you were working with them in the same location.”
There’s no going back
For the foreseeable future, livestreaming and videoconferencing will remain essential tools for keeping livelihoods, companies and perhaps even entire economies afloat. While the mass-adoption of this technology is still something of a mad scramble, governments, hospitals, schools and companies around the globe are now experiencing the convenience and efficiency of this high-tech approach to communication.
As the technology continues to improve with the arrival of 5G and the potential for 4K, 8K, real-time and even VR applications, it’s difficult to imagine our newly tech-connected society ever fully returning to the (comparatively) analog ways of the 2010s.