Donald Butts of InterDigital on Sensory 6G Insights

InterDigital’s Senior Director of Technology Strategy, Donald Butts, spoke to Mobile Magazine about the current landscape of 5G and future expectations

Mobile Magazine spoke with Donald Butts, Senior Director of Technology Strategy, InterDigital about the limitations of 5G technology, as well as where it is projected to go in the future. Highlighted in his interview are the experiments undertaken at Carnegie Mellon University Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) in partnership with InterDigital, where students explored tests for stationary and mobile immersive applications for a wide variety of use cases. 

He also speaks to the promise that 6G holds for future mobile development, and how quality of personal experience metrics (QoPE) will be crucial for mobile operators and service providers to unlock new services opportunities. 

Regarding immersive experiences, what are the limitations of 5G and where has industry gone wrong in its promotion?

While we have seen early adoption of 5G for practical virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications, 5G has not been able to deliver on the early hype due to myriad factors like costs, chip shortages, and politics.  As a result, we’ve seen lacklustre adoption across both consumer and industry sectors despite there being a lot of work done in developing services and bringing them to market.

It has become increasingly evident that the telecoms industry was too presumptuous in 5G’s ability to deliver truly immersive experiences. Rather, 5G has laid the groundwork for 6G to build on and enable these opportunities. While 5G provides data transfer rates that are far superior to previous generations, it still falls short of the conditions required to support immersive experiences. Extended reality (XR) and full immersive experiences require data transfer rates of 200Mbps to 5Gbps, far beyond what is currently possible with 5G. 6G however, certainly holds promise in this regard because it will utilise higher frequency bands and is said to provide speeds up to 100 times faster than 5G. This will be crucial to providing immersive experiences “on the go,” which may aid in its widespread adoption.

As we move towards 6G, what range of virtual experiences are in development and what potential consumer and industry use cases might emerge?

While its development is underway, we likely won’t “see” the first commercial deployments of 6G until 2030. 6G will build on the work done by 5G and this technology evolution is expected to play a crucial role in developing a formidable, distributed, low-latency environment that can better support personalised, immersive user experiences. 

These experiences can include XR-enhanced sports viewing, including a 360-degree 3D holographic projection of sporting events, as well as VR mobile playscapes and gaming experiences that can be accessed outside of sedentary, confined spaces. Haptics specialist Woojer has developed smartphone–tethered body straps and gaming vests that mimic various sensations like being shot, experiencing a detonation, or feeling raindrops falling on your skin. Haptic feedback capabilities such as touch and spatial awareness have been touted as important features to deliver truly immersive experiences and may help drive widespread adoption. 

New-age immersive experiences also have enterprise and industry applications. XR applications can support worker safety, diagnostics, and maintenance for companies in the transport, logistics, and construction arenas, and in the future, 6G might enable the ability to visit worksites and factories virtually, reducing the associated safety risks as well as travel.

Why is developing appropriate and standardised Quality of Personal Experience metrics crucial?

To ensure future 6G-enabled experiences can live up to our immersive expectations, researchers and industry need to collaborate on developing new human-context-centric metrics.  By focusing on quality of personal experience (QoPE), a true measure of service performance, mobile operators and service providers can unlock new services opportunities. While the introduction of 6G will effectively guarantee high speed, high bandwidth, and ultra-low latency requirements, its commercial success will also depend on industry’s ability to accurately measure service performance through the lens of QoPE. 

As a new generation of wireless, 6G will require an expansion to the language traditionally used to define quality of service (QoS) metrics to include new immersive, and sensory-enhanced experiences. 6G is being envisioned as an opportunity to use brain-computer interfaces to shift from people-to-device networks to people-to-people networks, and there are emerging opportunities to use sensory technologies to better integrate humans within the wireless experience.  

Today’s experiences are assessed by metrics like quality of service, but as we eventually realise 6G’s ability to merge the digital, physical, and virtual worlds, we will need new range and depth to our metrics.  Absent new 6G-driven qualitative metrics, mobile operators may find it difficult to sufficiently describe, measure, and evaluate the value proposition of immersive virtual environments, thus making monetization of these services even more challenging. Successfully delivering authentic, accurate and immersive experiences will require industry to qualify the human experience, such as traditional senses, sixth senses like proprioception, and cognitive load to develop appropriate measurement metrics.

The process of developing and standardising QoPE metrics will likely require cross functional dialogues, new skills, and industry collaborations to explore the applicable criteria, testing methods, and operational approaches from other industries. Such collaboration may help synthesise research and innovation to shape a standardised set of metrics contextualise 6G sensory experiences.

How have the experiments conducted at Carnegie Mellon University HCII helped to determine these metrics? 

To identify the user needs at the intersection of the physical, digital, and virtual worlds and what prominent factors will define QoPE, InterDigital collaborated with the faculty and engineering graduate students at the Carnegie Mellon University Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).  The students conducted a series of user testing and experiments exploring stationary and mobile immersive applications for use cases like gaming, cinema, and sports to begin to identify the key cognitive, physical, and perceptual factors industry stakeholders must consider when creating and promoting sensory 6G immersive experiences.

Cognitive factors are critical to consider because digital sensory interactions can result in both good and bad impacts. For example, over-exposure to digital stimuli can cause mental fatigue, therefore managing cognitive “noise” is crucial to avoid potential impairments. Physical safety is also key because exploring immersive environments may trigger nausea if there is too much latency or input lag. Perceptual factors must also be considered to deliver a satisfactory degree of immersion alongside believable representations of different environments. Developing and standardising QoPE metrics with these factors in mind is imperative and will help facilitate the seamless interactions with immersive environments that are fundamental to success and adoption.

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