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Don’t blink, but 5G is about to change a lot more than just watching movies

5G networks could enhance complex activities like controlling robots remotely. Above, UMass Lowell’s Yan Gu at a robotics demonstration. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

And you thought the smartphone of the future was just about watching video.

The advent of superfast 5G wireless networks, now being rolled out by Verizon and other telecom companies in major US cities, promises lightning-like downloads of movies and videos that rival the best home Internet connections.

But businesses and government agencies also stand to benefit in big ways. 5G networks could enhance a vast array of complex activities — controlling robots from remote locations, assisting in surgery, or helping first responders during a disaster.

At an event Thursday in Cambridge, Verizon hosted several companies planning new technology applications as the telecom giant rolls out 5G in the region this year.


It’s all made possible by the two key features that distinguish 5G from the common 4G wireless systems already used around the world:

There’s speed, of course — delivering billions of data bits per second and being able to integrate vast amounts of real-time data from multiple sources.

And there’s very little lag time (known in the business as latency) between the request for data and its actual delivery. Low latency is essential for many activities that demand instant response, from running industrial machinery to playing video games.

“It is so frickin’ awesome,” Verizon senior vice president Nicki Palmer said, though she said Verizon’s 4G is pretty darn quick, too. “But at the same time, there are things that really can’t be done on a 4G network.”

For example, Blueforce Development, a Newburyport maker of communications systems for first responders, showed off a product that benefits from 5G’s massive data capacity.

Blueforce will use 5G to capture live high-definition video from multiple police body cameras and airborne drones.

It could even capture data from smart watches to monitor the health of police officers.

All of the information is transmitted in real time and displayed at a central command hub that resembles something from the TV drama “24.”


Blueforce already makes such a system, but chief operating officer Bill Gellman said “the 5G network allows much faster sharing of the data. It also allows us to use much higher-definition data.”

The ability to send high-definition imagery also appeals to Proximie, a Bedford telemedicine company.

Proximie makes software that could let a surgeon consult a colleague remotely during an operation. Doing this in real time will require the extremely sharp video images that 5G is designed to deliver.

But just as important is 5G’s instant responsiveness, a crucial feature when so many computer services are performed online by machines hundreds or thousands of miles away. A 5G system should feel like having a cloud computer right over your shoulder, responding instantly to every command.

Chris Quick of RealBotics during his presentation at the Verizon 5G open house.Jonathan Wiggs/GlobeStaff/Globe Staff

That’s why RealBotics plans to use 5G to remotely control industrial robots. The Pittsburgh company offers a low-cost virtual reality system for teaching robotics. A user wearing cheap VR goggles and armed with a video game-type controller can send commands over a 5G network and get an instant response.

RealBotics’s founder, Chris Quick, said that the service could let businesses and schools offer inexpensive training in robotics.

“For $60, you can get access to a $30,000 or $40,000 robot,” Quick said.

Closer to home, a startup in Boston, Southie Autonomy, also plans to use 5G with robots — to train the machines, rather than people. It will use a 5G system to command small industrial robots and make it easy to quickly reprogram them for new tasks.


And from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a team of doctoral students demonstrated a prototype humanoid robot designed for search-and-rescue operations.

The robot had almost no computing power on board — just enough to transmit information to a remote server. But because of the 5G connection, the robot quickly adjusted its course as it climbed stairs.

And when it toppled onto its side, the remote server had the machine back on its feet within seconds.

A robot from University of Massachusetts Lowell’s robotics demonstration at the Verizon 5G open house.Jonathan Wiggs/GlobeStaff/Globe Staff

Awed by the potential of 5G, both the United States and China are racing to achieve dominance in the technology.

China’s giant telecommunications company Huawei, the world’s leading maker of cellular network gear, is winning contracts to build 5G systems around the world.

The Trump administration has responded by threatening to cut off Huawei’s access to American technology, such as Android cellphone software, as well as chips from Qualcomm and Analog Devices in Norwood.

Despite its global success, Huawei depends on these US-designed components to build its products.

Meanwhile, Verizon’s Palmer said her company isn’t fazed by the Chinese challenge.

“Verizon believes that we’re leading in the world,” she said, noting it began offering a home-based 5G service in four cities in October and now offers mobile 5G in two US cities, Chicago and Minneapolis.

In April, Verizon said that it would bring 5G to Boston and 19 other US cities sometime this year.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.