A postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney’s Centre for IoT and Telecommunications, Dr Zhanwei Hou, is developing a communication method called Tactile Internet – a technology that will allow users to experience touch over the internet.
Tactile Internet is a low-latency communication method that reduces communication delays. Operating a highly sensitive glove, stylus or similar device, the user renders the sense of touch while the receiver collects the touch feedback using tactile sensors and an actuator device, such as a robotic avatar. This actuator device would mimic the movement of the human operator.
This technology has the potential for a plethora of commercial applications.
“Tactile Internet could also have more promising applications, such as helping consumers feel a fabric when online shopping, conducting emergency repairs on factory automation, diagnosing a medical condition for a remote patient or even conducting repairs on space infrastructure from the earth,” Hou said.
The challenge for Hou and his collaborators, IoT expert Professor Branka Vucetic, Professor Yonghui Li and Dr Changyang She, is to use algorithms that achieve zero user-experienced delays.
“Tactile communication and touch applications will be at the heart of 6G technology and ‘industry 5.0’ – which are based on next-generation technologies, aimed to improve interactions and collaboration between humankind and machines,” Vucetic said.
“To achieve this, our technology is using deep learning to increase reliability and reduce latency for optimised communications.”
Latency is the delay between a user’s action and the time it takes to be transmitted or reproduced.
“The current internet mainly supports the transmission of visual and audio media. For Tactile Internet to work, we need to reduce latency and increase precision so that there is no perceptible lag,” Hou said.
“To use human biology as an example, if a human hand touches something, there is no perceptible lag in that touch transmitting to the brain, which means for us it feels instantaneous. For Tactile Internet to work, we need to reduce latency and increase precision so that there is no perceptible lag.
“Although 5G technology provides ultra-reliable low-latency communication for radio access networks, for long-distance communication of Tactile Internet, the major bottleneck is the speed of light, which is known as the ‘upper limit for speed,’ meaning nothing can travel faster than light,” he said.
“Light or radio frequency signals can travel 200km in the fibre or 300km in the air per every 1 millisecond. This means that if the communication distance is larger than 300km, the propagation delay of light of radio frequency signals alone is much larger than the 1 millisecond delay requirement.”
Research on the Tactile Internet technology was funded by the Australian Research Council.
A strong personal motivator for developing Tactile Internet has been the strict restrictions introduced via the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to worldwide travel bans and closed borders, my parents in China have never had the opportunity to cuddle or hold their only grandchild, which has been difficult for all of us,” Hou said.
“While we hope my parents will be able to meet their grandson soon, in the future we hope our research can contribute to a viable Tactile Internet that would allow families to hug and colleagues to shake hands while geographically separated.”