With smartphones and their touchscreens, we were given the ability to interact with the internet like never before—we could touch, pinch, and zoom in on webpages—but aside from occasional popups and notifications, we didn’t get much interaction in return. The next generation of wireless devices could change that.
In perhaps 20 years, we could have a wireless network that would send and receive vast amounts of data in less than one millisecond. At that speed, we would be able to match the reaction speed the human body has to touching something, meaning we could control objects anywhere in the world, in real time, from a mobile device and get the sensation that we were controlling something right in front of us.
Gerhard Fettweis, a professor at the Dresden University of Technology, believes that 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, could be fast enough to create a network of instant-reaction internet devices, mimicking the experience of real life. A study released in December exploring the future of 5G includes Fettweis’ connectivity concept, which he’s calling the “Tactile Internet.”
What the future may hold
Virtual worlds. Fettweis sees future students learning by doing, using virtual reality technology to interact in class. “Rather than struggling to pay attention in the back of a lecture hall,” Fettweis tells Quartz, students will be wandering the streets of ancient Rome and touching what’s in front of them (or so it will seem).
Virtual training rooms. We could learn new skills, like flying or surfing, from life-like simulations in our own living rooms, without setting foot on a beach or runway.
Immersive conversations. The next generation of video chatting could make two people feel as though they actually were in the same room as each other—you could potentially shake hands with someone on the other side of the world.
Distant doctors. Doctors would be able to diagnose and operate on patients, wherever they are, using “tele-robotic technologies,” Fettweis says. Doctors would be able to feel your wrist and measure your blood pressure over the internet.
No traffic lights. 5G could allow us to have fully automatic, self-driving cars that can react in an instant to changes in the road, and to other 5G-enabled vehicles and pedestrians, eliminating the need for traffic lights.
How likely is this the possibility of an instant-reaction internet? “It is happening already, creepingly,” Fettweis says. Robots on modern factory floors already can interact with each other and their surroundings almost instantaneously, for example. But we’ll need more powerful devices and a much faster wireless network before we see a truly tactile internet. Fettweis, who has worked with Vodafone and the International Telecommunication Union (the United Nations’ telecommunications arm) on his theories, says we’ll need a data network 100 times faster than the current 4G network—and it will probably take another decade or so for telecoms companies to start investing seriously in a new network.
“We see big steps happen every 10 years,” Fettweis says. “If people see that it’s an opportunity that could be missed, they won’t want to miss out.”