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Proof phones are the future of VR, IoT, and all the other cool tech you’re waiting for

The annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona just wrapped up, and it has arguably become more important than even the giant Consumer Electronics Show in terms of indicating where technology is headed. Despite highlighting many different trends — and focusing especially on virtual reality — the bottom line at the conference seemed to be that, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s our phones that are going to be the biggest factor in bringing us all of the big innovations we’re eyeing. Here’s a rundown of this year’s big Mobile World Congress trends:

1. Virtual Reality

We have to start here, because the show did, with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg striding past rows of headset-wearing audience members in what is sure to become an iconic (some called it “creepy”) photo. In his show-opening keynote speech, Zuckerberg touted VR as the future for his company, now one of the world’s most valuable. Facebook already has streamed more than 1 million hours of VR video, Zuckerberg said. And that was just through the Gear VR, the viewing headset Facebook’s Oculus VR division developed with Samsung that uses a mobile phone to display its content. Google, by the way, said during the show that another 350,000 hours have been watched using its low-cost Cardboard viewer.

Some of the VR hardware that’s starting to hit the market will require hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of equipment and connected PCs. But other headsets, like the Gear VR and Cardboard, use a mobile device at their heart. For most people, most of the time, using their mobile device and inexpensive headsets like these will be how they experience VR for the near term at the very least. Mobile video will drive the early days of whatever revolution VR causes.

2. 360 Video

Zuckerberg also touted 360 video, which provides an immersive, wraparound experience without requiring a special headset or technologies beyond, yes, your smart phone. Because of that, it could be even bigger than VR, at least in the short term, and at far less cost. We’re already starting to see some interesting projects pop up here, including a just-announced project by Justine Ezarik, a particularly tech-savvy YouTube star better known by her nom de web, iJustine. Expect way more of these projects as other online-video stars experiment with the technology and the form and bring their millions of mobile-wielding audience members along.

3. 5G

Next-generation high-speed networks promise many, many things, and all of them are about making that little handset in your pocket a much faster, much more connected, and much more powerful dashboard to your life. Lots of work needs to be done before 5G fully arrives, but here are some of what it promises:

You’ll be able to download entire movies in 5 seconds. Entertainment on your handset becomes a liquid experience. The download was already mostly dead, and streaming services were taking off, but now they’ll be superpowered, as will related interactive experiences. How will that change entertainment?

Your phone will connect and manage millions of sensors everywhere. This is mostly about the Internet of Things (see below); but again, the mobile device becomes the dashboard interacting with a broadly connected world in real time.

5G will power autonomous (driverless) vehicles. To have vehicles that are both extremely safe and need little human interaction, high-speed networks will be vital. One could call 5G-connected autonomous vehicles able to quickly download entertainment and news the ultimate mobile device.

4. IoT

Sensors will be in all kinds of devices and interacting in all kinds of ways with your phone, which will be the central controller for our automated, connected life of the future. To help pay for that, we likely can expect sponsored or ad-supported experiences in our car’s entertainment center, but also many other places. Maybe it will be in the bathroom, where sensors can monitor key health indicators (your weight is creeping up; here’s a deal at the closest gym), and even on the refrigerator (Hey, we noticed you’re out of Oreos, but maybe you’d like this Hydrox coupon added to your next Amazon Pantry order?). We’re already seeing bits of this, like Red Bull connecting sensors in the coolers that display its products to ensure they’re kept at the right temperature for customers.

These trends all suggest that as powerful as our mobile devices have become in a shockingly short time (just try to remember what phones were like even 15 years ago), they are poised to become even more to our lives, for new kinds of entertainment, health, finance, security, mobility, and other services and experiences.

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