Technology meets the senses: How 5G builds the ultimate immersive experience
Could we eat a salad, but have it taste like steak? A new generation of sensors and gadgets are exploiting 5G connectivity to help consumers touch, taste and feel.
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Hanging in the Tate Britain art gallery in London, the 1961 John Latham painting Full Stop is dominated by a large black spot. It suggests a solar eclipse or black hole to some viewers, while others envisage the negative of photographs of light reflecting off planets in the dark galaxy.
For a few weeks, visitors to the gallery had more than their eyes stimulated to help them interpret the work. They could feel circles, spots and dots pressing against the palms of their hands and hear sounds planned to emphasize both the circularity and the painting’s black-and-white duality. The other paintings in the award-winning “Tate Sensorium” exhibition were supplemented by smells of diesel and tobacco to evoke a ship’s hold, or the taste of charcoal-flavored chocolate to help bring out a work’s dark nature.
While considered “mind-blowing,” the 2015 exhibition was just the beginning of what’s possible today and in the near future with the support of technologies like 5G. The multimedia exhibit was part of a growing technological effort to develop multisensory, immersive experiences—which now harness smell and taste, alongside the more familiar advancements in sight, sound and touch, to maximize sensation and more reliably render human experience in digital forms.
“Technology enables the creation of multisensory experiences that enrich and augment the way we interact with the worlds around us,” says Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces at University College London and co-author of Multisensory Experiences: Where the senses meet technology, who helped to develop the Full Stop artistic experience. “As our scientific understanding of the senses grows, and our creative explorations and experimentations with novel multisensory technologies develop, we will be able to enhance existing experiences and create previously unimaginable ones.”
Pushing the limits of imagination
If multisensory stimulation can transform something as static as a painting, then what could it do for physical experiences? Could we eat a salad, but have it taste like steak? Could city-dwellers in tiny apartments smell the fresh leaves of a forest floor?
Already, researchers in the field are exploring how to re-create sweet, acidic and even umami tastes using gels and electrodes connected to a variable resistor. And the experimental London restaurant Kitchen Theory plays diners sounds that include crunching snow to help them enjoy jellyfish.
Such advances are being driven by two things, Obrist says: demand and available technologies. To date, most demand has been from the entertainment industry, while the technology has been limited by the ability to transfer large amounts of information at high speed.
With the continuing expansion of 5G connectivity, immersive experience applications are poised to touch almost every aspect of our lives. “5G becomes very important to enable real-time and realistic interactions over distance,” says Obrist. “We can move beyond one-off applications and establish multisensory experiences as a mainstream design and development space.”
Research into multisensory experiences, sometimes collectively called the “Internet of Senses,” is combining the high bandwidth and low latency that 5G can provide with a new generation of equipment. Using virtual-reality headsets, smell generators, micro-heaters, smart clothing, haptic feedback bodysuits and innovative wearables sensors, this work is expected to bring applications over the next decade that were previously only seen in film and television.
These applications are less ideal with the relatively lower speeds and narrower bandwidths of 4G connections. Just a few seconds’ delay in transmitting touch data between countries from one person’s sensor-filled glove to another would ruin an international handshake, for example. And multisensory systems need to be able to carry and coordinate multiple separate streams of information at the same time, so that the precise taste of an online gourmet meal matches the delivery of each mouthful.
5G mobile connectivity can allow for the flexibility of leaving the confines of our homes so we can have these experiences in different locations. The recent development of ultra-lightweight AR smart glasses and neckbands, thanks to the combination of 5G and edge computing, can also support a more seamless immersive experience both in the home and on the go.
“Devices and prototypes can and will be created to enrich traditional experiences,” Obrist says. “We will be able to facilitate distance dining experiences, where two people eat together while they are at a different location.”
Or perhaps you want to shake hands and hug family members on the other side of the world, or smell that genuine fresh bread aroma when you see a loaf advertised on your television. Or maybe you just want to relax with a “vocktail”: an interactive drinking glass that can stimulate your smell and taste in bespoke ways, to add more than a twist to your favorite drink.
The demand for immersive experiences
Demand for these applications and more is expected to be driven by a new generation of tech-savvy consumers. A December 2019 survey from the telecommunications company Ericsson revealed just how much: Urban early adopters, it says, anticipate that we will be using all our senses online by 2030.
“Of those who want an Internet of Senses, 40% see immersive entertainment as a main driver for this change; 33% think better online shopping will be key; and 31% think this change will come about due to the climate crisis,” the report says.
As Obrist puts it: “We are only starting to understand the opportunities.”
Learn how 5G is evolving immersive experiences.