5G and the tactile internet: what really is it?

Image credit: Gaudilab/Shutterstock (Image credit: Credit Gaudilab/Shutterstock)

5G is the next generation of mobile internet connectivity. It offers speeds 10, or even 20 times faster than current 4G networks, with much faster data upload and download speeds, greater bandwidth, and more stable connections.

This will enable us to do everything we currently do with our mobile devices more quickly, including streaming live 4K video and downloading movies in moments.

However, the speed and capacity of 5G also opens up a wealth of new opportunities with other connected devices, including real-time interaction in ways that have never been possible before. 

One of the most exciting of these is tactile, or haptic communication – transmitting a physical sense of touch remotely.

What is the tactile internet?

The tactile internet will allow the sense of touch to be transmitted over long distances, with or without visual feedback – something that has previously been impossible due to the amount of data required, and the need for low-latency connections for real-time interaction.

It has the potential to make augmented and virtual reality far more immersive, help remotely-operated machines become more accurate, open up new avenues in healthcare, and provide new opportunities in education – and that’s just the start.

Image credit: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock

Image credit: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock (Image credit: Credit vectorfusionart/Shutterstock)

How does it work?

One of the biggest challenges for the tactile internet is creating the feeling of pressure against skin without a physical surface. There are several ways to achieve it – one of the most promising being tightly focused sound waves.

British company Ultrahaptics has developed a system that uses ultrasound to produce haptic feedback in mid-air. Its hardware features ultrasonic transducers (tiny high-frequency speakers), which are controlled individually to create different sensations on your skin. If you can't imagine that, think of the way you can feel the bass through your body at a loud concert.

These transducers are paired with a depth camera, which allows the system’s software to detect the position of your hand and react accordingly. A screen or VR headset can provide accompanying visuals and audio, making a virtual object tactile.

Microsoft is developing another form of haptic feedback, which uses air vortex rings. Like Ultrahaptics’ technology, the hardware is similar to a speaker diaphragm, but in this case the air is pushed through a small hole that turns it into a concentrated ring that can travel 8.2 feet with a resolution of 4 inches – much less precise than the ultrasound system, but at a far greater distance.

Augmented reality has already taken off in the fields of design and engineering, and the tactile internet would allow workers to interact more directly with their creations. Virtual objects will feel more solid, and together with the reduced latency of 5G, controls that once felt disconnected will feel tangible to the user.

Image credit:  PaO_STUDIO/Shutterstock

Image credit:  PaO_STUDIO/Shutterstock (Image credit: PaO_STUDIO/Shutterstock)

How can it be used?

One of the first uses of the tactile internet will undoubtedly be games – letting players feel the virtual environments they interact with – but it also has much wider potential.

One of the most important applications for the tactile internet is medicine . Once 5G becomes widespread, people in remote communities could get access to the kind of care that would once have required hours of travel. This will include real-time consultations via telepresence, but thanks to the tactile internet, treatment will also be possible vis remote-operated robotics.

Thanks to 5G, not only will it be possible to control robots remotely over long distances, doctors will be able to receive tactile feedback that will help them work with more precision.

For example, the tactile internet could allow a surgeon to feel the pressure being applied with a remotely operated scalpel, or enable an osteopath to manipulate a joint to help a patient recover from an injury.

The tactile internet, powered by 5G, also has the potential to improve life for people living with disabilities. Until now, braille smartphones have rarely evolved beyond concept drawings due to the difficulty of creating a surface that can physically change shape on the fly, recreating the necessary patterns of raised dots. With the tactile internet and haptic technology, braille telecommunication could become far easier, with emitters producing ‘bumps’ that can be felt and changed in seconds.

Image credit: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Image credit: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock (Image credit: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

Together with augmented reality (AR), the tactile internet will also find uses in industry. For designers and engineers, it will allow them to manipulate 3D models in virtual space with more precision. 

Companies like Volvo area already experimenting with Microsoft Hololens and Google Glass to help with complex assembly on the production line, and the addition of haptic feedback could make work even easier and safer, providing tactile warnings if a components is misplaced and making it simpler to interact with instructions presented in workers’ field of view.  

For car manufacturers, the tactile internet will also make it easier to keep drivers’ attention on the road ahead. It will be many years before fully autonomous cars are widespread, and the popularity of infotainment systems with large touchscreens means modern cars are packed with potential distractions. With the tactile internet, drivers can interact with in-car systems by touch alone, without looking down at displays and controls. 

The possibilities are almost endless. If a task currently involves communication by audio or video, the tactile internet could add another layer of interaction.

When will it be here?

Microsoft’s vortex ring system is still at an experimental stage, but Ultrahaptics’ ultrasound technology is already commercially available as developer kits for anyone with an interest in the tactile internet.

At the moment, most applications have involved games in public spaces, but as 5G rolls out, we expect to see it put to much more novel use.

5G is set to transform virtual reality, with higher quality, smoother and more lifelike visuals and audio – and thanks to the tactile internet, you’ll not only be able to see and hear the virtual world, but feel it as well.

5G Uncovered, in association with Samsung, brings you everything you need to know about the next wave of connectivity - not just how fast it's going to be, but in just how many ways it's going to change your life. Our 5G Uncovered hub is carefully curated to show everything there is to know about the next generation of connection.   

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)