6G, the next big mobile technology: Internet of the senses, anyone?

The first of a two-part series on 6G explains the virtual experience that the ultra high-speed technology promises

Internet of things (IoT), which connects myriad devices on 5G, ena­bling augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) could soon become passé. In 2030, when 6G, the next big mobile technology, hits the world commercially, IoT could change into the internet of the senses.

So what is the internet of the senses? Today, digital technology deals with two senses — sight and sound. But experts say that with the speed and ultra low latency of 6G, in addition to its high density network, consumers will also be able to touch, feel and even smell in the digital world. Research by big tech companies like Meta is blurring the lines between “thinking” and “doing”, by making the brain the user interface. So if you are thinking of calling a number, the brain interface will call the number on your phone, without your having to  use the touchscreen.  

Sounds like science fiction? Yes, but many global big tech and other specialised players are already working to bring about digital sensory experiences very similar to what we experience in our physical life. One key element of this is haptics, or the technology that can create a sense of touch. Companies are experimenting with haptic gloves, a wearable device with a 

lot of sensors which enables the user to experience realistic touch through advanced tactile feedback, including pressure, vibration and texture.

Indian telcos, such as Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, have experimented with it in 5G healthcare applications. For example, doctors have worn the haptic glove to be able to  touch and feel while taking a remote ultrasound on screen.  Going up the chain for precision remote robotic surgery would be much easier with 6G. 

The technology could have many use cases, provided haptic device prices fall. Currently, they are very expensive, but several Indian companies have started to assemble them for industrial use, such as in e-commerce where consumers can touch and feel clothes and other products, or taste foodstuffs, and also in enterprise, especially in training programmes, amongst others.

The 6G technology can also give you the sense of smell virtually. So perfume companies would no longer need high street retail outlets as consumers can check out fragrances online, and can thereby save costs. An Ericsson study on white-collar workers says that nearly 60 per cent expect “digital aroma” to be a reality, one where they can digitally visit forests or the countryside and inhale the natural scent of these places, without having to  physically travel there.  

Of course, digital scent technology (also known as olfactory tech), which includes setting up a complex web of electronic noses and olfactometers, is still in its infancy. In 2020 US-based OVR Technology built a scent device which attaches to AR or VR headsets supported by software and triggers precise scent molecules based on the consumer interaction. Other companies are also working in this field.        

But it is the power of 6G that will make these new applications a commercial reality. This next generation mobile technology provides data speeds that could hit one terabyte — a thousand times more than the maximum that 5G can offer. Latency, the lag between command and response, will fall to less than a millisecond, compared to 10 milliseconds in 5G, and power consum­ption is also expe­cted to fall 1000 fold, a critical factor, as all these applications will require hundreds of sensors.

Even devices are likely to change dramatically. By capturing what the brain is commanding and using it as an interface, there will be no ne­ed for keyboards or  game controllers, and smart phones would not requ­ire the touchscreen at all. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, Meta is working on a system to read the mind and it is supposed to have used data collected from New York University to do so.

The technological changes could lead to smarter and smaller AR/VR glasses, which can recognise a person even if you have forgotten their name and tell you the details of where you have met them before. Holographic technology can make it possible for photo-realistic human representation with whom one can communicate on the immersive platforms, and their sensory layer would make the exp­erience very close to a real human interaction in the physical world.

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