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The internet of senses could fundamentally alter human consciousness and the way people experience reality. It will pose major privacy and security challenges, even if existing technological constraints mean it is still years away.

A faint breeze coming off the sea feels pleasant on your sun-kissed skin. The bracing air of saltwater mixed with sun lotion smells like summer. Sand tickles your feet, and the sound of waves crashing against the rocks in the distance is soothing. A perfect day spent at the beach – while physically being in your living room.

This could become possible with the emergence of the internet of senses, a term coined by the Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson in 2019 to describe a combination of future technologies reliant on super-fast 5G and 6G networks to facilitate multi-sensory experiences.

“Digital technology today mainly uses two senses – sight and sound. But it may be soon that we can feel, taste and smell digital objects in a way that is indistinguishable from physical experiences,” Damir First, co-founder of the augmented reality (AR) software company Matterless, said.

Ericsson said consumers had the highest expectations for AR glasses in its 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2030 report. Eventually, it is expected that the brain itself could function as an interface, with the user only needing to think of the commands “and they will happen.”

All of this could give birth to smartphones that can do without touch screens and “the end of keyboards, mouses, game controllers, and ultimately user interfaces for any digital device,” with wearables capable to “instantly translate languages, allow us to control our sound environment and experience smell, taste, textures, and temperature digitally.”

NextMind brain-computer interface. Image by NextMind

Privacy matters

In 2019, Ericsson believed that advanced technology would enable a full internet of senses by 2025 and include the ability to communicate thoughts digitally by 2030. This time frame now seems far-fetched. Many of the solutions that could lead to the internet of senses are still in their infancy.

“I’m sceptical about the internet of senses these days. The imperfection of today’s technology leads to discomfort and loss of realism,” said Alexey Voropaev, a technical lead of the perception system of self-driving trucks at Evocargo.

This partly explains why Meta struggles to win mass appeal for its vision of the metaverse that is accessible via a pricey set of virtual reality (VR) headsets. The key to success in making the immersive experience work is a direct connection between a nervous system and a computer, Voropaev said.

Some companies working in this field, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, pin their hopes on brain implants to achieve neural interface – leading to public scrutiny and complaints from animal rights groups over experiments with monkeys. Technology that requires surgical intervention could potentially open Pandora’s box of a regulatory nightmare.

“Due to the complexity and conservatism of technologies related to medicine, these technologies would need more than a dozen years for mass adoption,” Voropaev said.

A range of startups is working on non-invasive neural interface technology. There is a clip-on solution from NextMind, a Paris-based company acquired by Snap in March. There is also a neural wristband developed by CTRL-Labs, a New York-based startup Meta bought in 2019.

Even without the need for a brain implant, there is the ever-pressing question of privacy.

“The vast amount of data that could be collected from a multi-sensory experience will give the suppliers of these experiences a chance to harvest data orders of magnitude greater than what we can imagine today,” First said.

Chemical reactions… and context

There are also multiple technological challenges to overcome for the internet of senses to take off. Apart from advancements in wireless communications, AR, artificial intelligence, and automation, the shift from screen-based to sense-based experiences will require entirely new audio, visual, and haptic devices.

A wealth of research is already there. Lightweight AR glasses from companies like Qualcomm and contact lenses from Mojo Vision will allow users to project digital objects into physical space with “uncanny levels of realism,” according to First. Meanwhile, researchers at Meiji University in Japan have developed an early-stage prototype replicating the senses of taste called Norimaki Synthesizer.

Norimaki Synthesizer. Image by University of Meiji

Emulating an accurate sense of touch could prove to be the biggest challenge. While haptic feedback is already available today, there is still some way to go until the senses of weight, motion, temperature, and texture of digital objects are just right.

“Low latency is a crucial factor when we want to create tactile sensations. Our touch responds to vibrations that are sensitive to changes over one millisecond. This creates a need for very low latency to recreate a credible sense of touch,” First said.

Some research has turned to chemistry for solutions. A team at the University of Chicago is developing a new kind of haptic feedback it calls “chemical haptics.” Their approach is based on a system of wearable patches that stimulate the skin through five different chemicals they contain.

Menthol and capsaicin simulate coolness and warmth, respectively; lidocaine is used for a sensation of numbness; sanshool tingles the skin; and cinnamaldehyde simulates a stinging sensation, which could be useful to relay negative feedback.

Demonstration of chemical haptics system. Image by University of Chicago

Human psychology is another barrier, and technology will need to be fine-tuned to tackle behavioral challenges. That briny sea air that smelled so fresh on your virtual day at the beach could come off as a fishy stink in the urban environment.

“Although the brain receives signals from our taste buds and nose, the actual perception of taste and smell requires a complicated interplay in the brain and its expectations,” First said.

If mastered, the technology that taps into that, enhances senses, and picks on nuances of temperature shifts, balance, and gravity could expand the limitations of a physical body, he said.

“Digital sensory experiences could fundamentally alter the human consciousness to experience reality in radically new ways,” First predicted.

Source: Internet of senses to “fundamentally alter” human consciousness | Cybernews