The life that science fiction sketched out has begun to become reality: dozens of devices connected in every home, virtual communications, advanced robotics, instant traffic control and logistics, industrial operations, telemedicine, new ways of learning, digital twins, the internet of the senses…the list of applications that await the new generation of wireless technologies, 6G, is endless. In a decade, a new technological revolution will begin with billions of connected humans, devices, vehicles, robots and drones. It has already started to take its first steps.
The world’s tech giants are meeting until May 13 in Seville for the 5G Forum. When it was launched, 5G technology claimed higher speeds and capacity than ever before, with 20 gigabytes per second and reactions in a millisecond. But its applications have gone much further. According to Ricardo Medina, general director of Medina Media Events, which organized the Seville meeting, “it turns out that no one had sufficiently valued how good it could be.”
6G will now allow speeds of up to one terabyte per second and a 0.1-millisecond response. For Tommy Svensson, professor of communication systems at Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), “expectations are high and the wish list is long.” Chalmers is part of the team of 25 entities involved in the European Hexa-X research project for the implementation of the new generation.
The members of the group consider that, “although 5G has made it possible to consume digital media anywhere and at any time, the technology of the future should allow us to integrate into completely virtual or digital worlds.” “In the world of 2030,” the consortium notes, “human intelligence will be augmented by being tightly coupled and seamlessly intertwined with network and digital technologies. With advances in artificial intelligence, machines can transform data into reasoning and decisions that will help humans better understand and act on our world. As today’s home and industrial machines transform into swarms of multipurpose robots and drones, new haptic [interaction through touch] and human-machine thinking interfaces to control them from anywhere should become an integral part of the networked future.”
Svensson points out that, in the next ten years–”or even sooner,” he predicts–6G will enable the internet of the senses. “This means that we will be able to experience internet applications using all five human senses, not just sight and hearing like today.” “And our homes, offices, factories and cities,” he adds, “will be represented on a constantly updated interactive map, capable of predicting what will happen in the real world. We will be able to communicate through holograms and work with intelligent surfaces positioned in three dimensions with information about the orientation of objects.”
Holograms will make it possible to interact with all kinds of objects from any location. They will allow us to enjoy impossible shows, such as the María Callas concerts held in theaters around the world two years ago, to recreate the presence of loved ones, hold face-to-face meetings with people far away, go to the supermarket without leaving home and participate in the parallel world that the metaverse promises.
“All this will be possible,” the scientist says, “thanks to high transmission speeds, low latency, knowledge of the environment, positioning and orientation, integrated detection, the network of networks and the decentralized computing power in the mobile networks. 6G can guarantee energy-efficient, reliable, robust and secure communication.”
Akihiro Nakao, Professor of Engineering at the University of Tokyo and member of a Finnish and Japanese research team on 6G development, agrees: “It’s not just about higher speeds and faster response, although those things will get better. 6G goals include a massive improvement in energy efficiency, security based on quantum mechanics, network optimization powered by artificial intelligence, integration with satellite networks, and more. For everyday life, all of this means that people will have more seamless experiences communicating with each other, as well as interacting with services and devices.”
Akihiro Nakao adds that “some areas of life that could benefit from 6G include healthcare, where low-power embedded sensors could communicate real-time health data to doctors or systems, or even disaster response, as the integration with satellite platforms means that if ground infrastructure is damaged, essential communication can be maintained.”
Andy Molisch, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi, identifies three applications that will mark the development of the new generation of communications: haptic internet, holographic communications and edge computing, a computing infrastructure that improves the efficiency of applications, devices and local edge servers. “These three areas,” according to Molisch, “have the potential to change communications, health, transportation, education, and more.”
Another of 6G’s great advances, according to the members of the European project ENABLE-6G, directed by Domenico Giustiniano and Joerg Widmer, will be the digital twin. This concept, which supposes the exact virtual representation of a physical object, will allow medical researchers to determine the molecular reaction to a treatment before administering it and to rehearse surgical interventions. It can also model the response of infrastructure, anticipate traffic behavior or foresee the result of industrial processes, among thousands of other applications. Hyundai, among other companies, is already using the latest virtual reality technology to transform car design.
The new innovations will also improve location systems, essential for autonomous driving and remote-controlled industrial processes. According to Henk Wymeersch, professor of communication systems at Chalmers, the new mobile technology “will offer increasingly sophisticated geolocation functions with an accuracy of up to less than a centimeter.”
The technology will likewise enable multi-channel transmission of uncompressed ultra-high-definition video, ultra-high-speed, short-distance data transfer between devices, as well as chip-to-chip communications.
As Svensson explains, at the individual level, 6G opens the door to the internet of the senses. According to Marianna Obrist, Professor of Multisensory Interfaces at University College London, “although interactive technologies are a fundamental and common part of our daily lives, the typical user experience only involves the senses of sight and hearing.” “However,” she adds, “touch, taste and smell have a great impact on health, safety, leisure, work and our general well-being. Therefore, multi-sensory experiences, if embedded in interactive technologies in a user-friendly way, could open up entirely new product, technology and service opportunities.”
The European project Sense X is working on the integration of these senses. Devices such as TastyFloats, a taste system for tasting based on the principle of acoustic levitation, are already being developed. As Obrist explains, this model “uses high-intensity sound waves to suspend matter, in this case flavor particles, in the air.” “We developed a contactless device that delivers taste stimuli in the air. In this way, the user is free to interact with the stimulus using their tongue.” Sense X also works with the implementation of touch technology to design multisensory experiences. A research team from the University of Chemnitz and Dresden (Germany) has taken a major step forward in the development of sensitive electronic skins with integrated artificial hairs, which attempt to mimic the sensitivity of human skin.
This immediate future still has challenges to solve. The first is that 6G signals, to achieve data rates of one terabyte per second and response times as low as 0.1 milliseconds, must be transmitted in the terahertz range, beyond 300 GHz. This means that its bandwidth will be very high, but also that the range of the signals will be very short and could be blocked by walls and other obstacles. That means it will require more base stations, although they will be smaller, and many new types of antennas to provide sufficient coverage.
As Andy Molisch explains, “at higher frequencies, the waves become more difficult to handle, which makes it easier to lose connection.” “New algorithms must also be developed that allow processing on the new bandwidth and completely new hardware. There is still a lot we need to understand before we can start building practical tools that work in this space, so that we understand communication at these frequencies enough to make 6G an everyday reality.”
Svensson starts from an advantage: the new generation comes with artificial intelligence and machine learning support already available.
Future 6G networks will also require improved wireless communications to provide accurate environment sensing and significantly reduce devices’ energy footprint, in order to avoid a huge increase in overall network power consumption. To do so, two key technologies are developed: low-power visible light communication, which uses LED lights to transmit data through the visible spectrum, and reconfigurable smart surfaces, which provide communication capabilities to the surface of walls and objects. According to Joerg Widmer, Principal Investigator of Enable 6G, “Integration of Reflective Intelligent Surfaces (RIS) will improve network capacity and higher tolerance to link loss, thereby improving mobile services for users. that citizens and industry depend on.”
Finally, the avalanche of data poses a challenge to guarantee privacy, for which researchers are developing automatic learning mechanisms that preserve it, “to share with the network infrastructure,” explains Giustiniano, “only the metadata necessary to provide these services, while protecting personal data.”