Building the Foundations for the Immersive Tactile Internet: A Challenge for Infrastructure Providers

Article written by Dr. Thomas King, CTO DE-CIX

As we peer into the future, we wonder what the Internet of tomorrow holds. Science fiction has tantalized us with visions of an immersive tactile Internet, a digitally engineered 3D virtual space where our digital avatars interact in a world so realistic that distinguishing reality from the virtual becomes a challenge. While we’ve made significant strides toward realizing this vision, achieving a true Holo Deck experience requires further technological evolution. To make this dream come true, end-user technology must advance and gain widespread acceptance, and the digital infrastructure must be ready to transport vast amounts of data with the lowest possible latency. This journey from science fiction to science fact hinges on sophisticated interconnected gadgets and high-performance networks that deliver synchronised and seamless video, audio, sensory, and cyber-locational data to and from our physical locations.

The immersive tactile Internet centres on our digital avatars interacting with the digital twins of people, objects, and entirely virtual entities. This experience is powered by virtual reality (VR) but extends beyond headsets to include wearables that convey subtle sensory information such as pressure, heat, texture, and aroma. Synchronizing these data streams with video and audio streams is crucial to maintain authenticity and user satisfaction.

To paint a high-definition 3D representation of real-world spaces, multiple video feeds offering a 360° perspective are essential. Wearables and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) equipped with sensors track our intentions and movements, translating them into actions. This information guides the video feed sent to each user. Tactile feedback, for physical interactions or object manipulation, must also be seamlessly integrated into the data delivered to each user or device.

The success of this immersive Internet relies on minimizing latency and providing substantial bandwidth. Consider the needs of 360° 8K cloud VR, which demands latency below 10 milliseconds and over 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) bandwidth per user. It’s evident that the connectivity requirements are substantial, especially if multiple users share a connection.

The challenge of proximity: How close is close enough?

The tactile Internet demands a new level of digital infrastructure: one that stores, analyses, processes, exchanges, multiplexes, synchronizes, and delivers data with minimal delay. Applications such as haptic VR require extremely low latency, sometimes as low as 0.5 milliseconds. However, the physical limitations of the speed of light restrict interactions dependent on sub-millisecond latency to individuals and objects within a relatively short distance, roughly 80 kilometres. This limitation is suitable for tasks like remote-controlled robots in challenging environments or complex specialized surgery performed from a centralized hospital within the local region.

For less critical applications like interpersonal interactions, gaming, virtual shopping, and entertainment, a latency of 5 to 15 milliseconds, allowing a distance of approximately 400 to 1200 kilometres to the data centre, is practical. Achieving this low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity will require a dense mesh of infrastructure, including advanced last-mile technologies like 5G and FTTH/B.

Edge computing will play a pivotal role, necessitating container data centres in neighbourhoods and smaller infrastructure boxes in basements. Moreover, infrastructure providers must deliver a highly interconnected landscape, with data centres and networks linked to meet the demands of the immersive Internet.

Technology neutrality is key

To create the interconnected, immersive Internet, we’ll need various network technologies, from 3G and copper cables to 5G and fiber, working together to ensure seamless coverage. Over time, older technologies will need upgrades to support more immersive applications, driving the need for on-net content caching, AI application hosting, and a plethora of data centres for the digital twins. ISPs will store and serve content and environments close to end-users, requiring a network of high-performance interconnection platforms. These next-generation Internet Exchanges (IXs) will facilitate low-latency data exchange, enhancing interoperability, security, and resilience.

As we march toward the future of an immersive tactile Internet, we must preserve the openness and neutrality of the Internet while promoting flexibility for users. Standardization is crucial for interoperability, and infrastructure must be diverse and technologically neutral to foster openness and interconnect various universes created within the digital landscape.

Ultimately, the tactile Internet’s success lies in creating a connectivity fabric that intelligently interconnects devices, data flows, clouds, and data centres with low latency and high bandwidth. While sub-millisecond latency may be challenging over longer distances, future advancements, such as quantum network technology, could hold the key to overcoming these distance constraints. In the end, the foundation for the future is being built today, offering a glimpse into a thrilling digital tomorrow.