Q&A With Gerhard Fettweis, Creator of the Tactile Internet

The 5G application would mimic the experience of touching something in real time

17 March 2017

It’s no surprise that IEEE Fellow Gerhard Fettweis was tapped to be cochair of the IEEE 5G Initiative. After all, he has been involved in developing every generation of wireless networks, starting with 2G, the second generation.

Since 1994 he has been a professor at the Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany, where his focus is mobile communications. He’s also a senior research scientist with the International Computer Science Institute, an independent nonprofit in Berkeley, Calif.

“As a researcher, you’re always working on the next generation,” Fettweis says. “I’m now researching things related to 6G.”

In November, Fettweis received the ring of honor from VDE, the largest technical and scientific association in Europe. He earned its highest distinction of merit in research and development for his work with mobile technology and microelectronics.

He was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 2009 for “contributions to signal processing algorithms and chip implementation architectures for communications.”

An active volunteer, he serves on the IEEE Communications Society board of governors.

Why did you become interested in wireless technology?

As a communications engineer, I’m concerned about transporting bits from Point A to Point B. It’s amazing how wireless systems work. Cellphone users are actually doing everything they can to disconnect a call by, say, walking from room to room, closing windows or doors, or going from indoors to the outdoors. As a researcher, I have to figure out how to keep the call connected. It’s exciting to work on such challenges.

What 5G application excites you the most?

A concept I introduced in 2012, called the tactile Internet. It will offer an instant reaction that mimics the experience of touching something in real life. With 5G wireless networks expected to send and receive data in a millisecond, that speed would match the reaction time the human body has to touching something. IEEE defines the tactile Internet as dealing with processes or objects in perceived real time (see related standard on p. 13).

This way you could, for example, catch a falling object remotely, or control a connected car at an intersection. If you provide haptic feedback, you can also feel a reaction such that it seems to be instantaneous. The tactile Internet will be used in areas such as automation, education, entertainment, gaming, farming, health care, and industrial transportation. It will also enable humans to control robots remotely in real time.

I began developing this concept during a sabbatical at Berkeley eight years ago. I spoke with psychologists and physiologists to try to understand reaction times for remote control. For example, how fast does a system have to react for the object we want to control to be seen as behaving naturally. I also looked at how robots on factory floors function as they interact with each other and their surroundings almost instantaneously.

The range of 1 millisecond speed kept popping up. For just about everything we want to control, there’s this millisecond constraint. It is super challenging to tackle this from a variety of angles, like the security side and the physiological side.

For the tactile Internet, we’ll need more powerful devices and a much faster wireless network, 100 times faster than the current 4G. The 5G latency rate is expected to be less than 1 millisecond; 4G networks have a latency of 25 ms.

Once there’s a ubiquitous infrastructure with which we can control real and virtual objects, planet Earth will be changed big-time.

Which areas will 5G applications affect the most?

Transportation, sports, and education. 5G will allow vehicles to react in an instant to 5G-enabled vehicles and pedestrians, thereby nearly eliminating accidents, traffic jams, and even traffic lights. Pedestrians using 5G-enabled smartphones could be able to walk safely into the street without checking for cars, because 5G-enabled cars would be routed automatically around the person or come to a full stop. In 20 years, most fatalities on the road should be a thing of the past.

For sports, instead of simply watching football players from way up in their seats or on stadiums’ big-screen TVs, fans wearing smartglasses will be able to actually see the action from the player’s point of view, without the player having to wear a camera. Hundreds of ultrahigh-definition cameras joined together in a digital rendering system will be positioned in multiple rings around the field, and players will be tracked by vision systems. Fans will be able to activate a specific player’s tracker and, through the screen in their smartglasses, see what the player sees on the field.

In classrooms, students will be able to learn by doing, using virtual reality technology to interact. And 5G will deliver more realistic, immersive, and interactive VR experiences than do today’s systems. Headsets will be mobile, and not plugged into computers. Students will be able to virtually wander the streets of, say, ancient Rome, touching its famous landmarks.

People will no longer learn a new language from a book or tape but by having real conversations with fellow students within virtual settings. According to experts, learning a new language could be 10 times more efficient when done interactively.

Ultimately 5G will revamp education. It’s going to be an exciting world.

What is your hope for 5G?

That the technology will cover every corner of the planet and provide Internet access to the nearly 3 billion people who live in rural and remote areas where Internet connectivity does not exist today.

With 5G, everyone is talking about rolling out services for high-density networks, using smaller cells for urban areas with ranges of 10 to 100 meters. In general, 5G initiatives are not concerned with sparsely populated areas that need to connect to a base station located 100 kilometers away. The need is being addressed only by the airborne balloon of Google X’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Aquila solar-powered drone project, both of which transmit connectivity from above.

Because IEEE covers the entire globe, we believe we can easily address all needs globally, whereby every individual counts.

This article appears in the March 2017 print issue as “Gerhard Fettweis: Developing 5G and Beyond.”

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