Do we need regulation for the ‘internet of smells’?

Head of emerging tech at Ofcom discusses watchdog’s work to keep tabs on new products and services

Credit: Aqua Mechanical/CC BY 2.0

Communications watchdog Ofcom is preparing for a world in which it may have to regulate “the internet of smells”.

Earlier this year the regulator published its Technology Futures report, which mapped the emerging technologies that might come to play a more significant role in the future of communications and broadcasting.

These were split into five broad categories: immersive communications services; mobile and wireless; fixed and optical technologies; broadcast and streaming; and satellite technology.

Speaking at this week’s PublicTechnology Live event, Ofcom’s director of emerging and online technology Simon Saunders said that regulator is determined to closely follow developments not just in products and services that it currently regulates, but in those that might come under its remit in the future. The report was informed by months of research and conversations with experts in each field.

“We set out to try and discover the technologies that we were not paying enough attention to or did not know about, so that we could make regulation more robust and spot places where regulation could really help,” Saunders said. “[We were looking at] technologies that might turn the dial in any of the markets that we regulate, but are not necessarily well known today in the industry.”

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The mobile and wireless section of the report considers developments such as networks free of the current cellular system of boundaries, while the fixed and optical segment covers developments in fibre cabling.

In the world of broadcast and streaming, Ofcom has mapped the potential impact of concepts such as object-based media, which can be altered and personalised for individual users. The satellite sector, meanwhile, could be shaped by machines that could be reconfigured – as well as those that might be manufactured in space.

The immersive communications section contains many of the report’s most eye-catching areas, of interest, including brain-machine interface technology, haptic-communications – which are based on touch – and even olfactory communications.

The communications watchdog is, according to Saunders, already conceiving of a world it which it regulates the market for connected devices that allow us to communicate nasally.

“There is significant research into olfactory communications – or what we could call ‘the internet of smells’. You decide for yourself whether or not that sounds like a good thing,” he told attendees.

Before that point is reached, more well-established comms tools are likely to undergo significant changes and improvements in the meantime.

“There is a long way to go still in improving video tech,” Saunders said.

He pointed out that the “bit rate of reality” as viewed by the human eye has been calculated to equate to 2.5 terabits per second. This compares with a typical bit rate for ultra HD video of up to 56 megabits per second. Both of these figures are a tiny fraction of the approximating rate of the brain: 20 petabits per second.

Sam Trendall

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