Immersive Web: what if we felt the Internet?


If, today, we are used to surfing the Internet, the tip of a huge iceberg of interconnected data, recent technological developments should soon allow us to immerse ourselves in this bubbling ocean of big data.

Immersion aims to provide the user with a sense of presence by using sensory capture and restitution technologies: the user feels transported into the digital environment created by digital technologies, to the point that he feels these objects . virtual digital as part of its reality .

For their part, digital systems detect and interpret better and better the behaviors and emotions of their interlocutors , to such an extent that humans have the impression that this system is aware of their presence and interacts voluntarily.

The films Matrix and more recently Ready Player One reflect this idea well: to interpose themselves between the sensory receptors of man and reality in order to create a new world, which is sometimes called the “metaverse”. This concept has already been used for several years for aviation or driving simulators, or for leisure parks ( The Extraordinary Journey at Futuroscope, for example).

The immersive web follows three generations of the web: from static web 1.0 which resembles a display “showcase”, to participatory web 2.0 which integrates users in the creation of content, and to so-called “semantic” web 3.0 , which introduces knowledge engineering to structure data.

This fourth generation, the “web 4.0” or “immersive web”, must be very accessible thanks to high-speed 5G networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) . The coupling of the web and 5G has brought us since the beginning of the 2020s into the era of an “ambient”, pervasive and ubiquitous web, where many objects are connected and communicate autonomously.

Immersive virtual, augmented or mixed reality technologies are considered by several players to be the fourth digital revolution (after personal computers, laptops and smartphones). They should allow a major metamorphosis of the practice of the Web, whose functionalities are likely to evolve more or less quickly according to the level of adoption of the technology, the device used, but also according to the evolution of the regulations relating to the protection of data.

Haptic feedback gloves capture tactile sensations and provide them to the user. In particular, they provide training in the handling of dangerous equipment. XR expo, Unplash , CC BY

What will the Internet look like with the immersive web?

Virtual chatbots (like ChatGPT) respond naturally and accurately to user queries . In the context of a search engine, queries no longer need to consist of keywords, but become natural discussions.

This type of conversation, which is more natural for humans, could have other applications: a prototype of group therapy in the school environment, for example, was tested by 134 students at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan in 2021. Similar systems are tested for job interviews or industrial assistants .

Search engine responses could be virtual 3D objects transferred to the user, or tours of virtual environments. Immersive technologies are even considered a disruptive technology that is revolutionizing tourism management and marketing .

Furthermore, social networks, chats and forums are being transformed into metaverses ( second life , Meta Horizon worlds ). Videoconferencing can evolve into “holoportation”  : a system developed in 2016 by Microsoft, which allows high-quality, real-time 3D reconstructions of an entire space, including the people, furniture and objects it contains , using a set of new depth cameras. This technology has also been tested in the field of education through a few prototypes , and has made it possible to highlight the important role of presence (and tele-presence) in higher education.

Lighter and more powerful standalone mixed reality headsets could allow the adoption of this technology on a large scale, with for example the Meta Quest 3 headset presented by Mark Zuckerberg on June 1, 2023.

On the health side, surgery has seen many technological advances , since the first telesurgery in 2001. Surgeons can work remotely with a three-dimensional screen, via high-definition binoculars – but the average latency, around 700 milliseconds, favors training and planning uses . The world’s first collaborative shoulder surgery using mixed reality was performed in 2017 at Avicenne AP-HP Hospital in France. Haptic feedback enables the transmission of tactile information to surgeons, allowing the consistency of tissue and tension in sutures to be felt.

Today, several prototypes of medical care using haptic devices and connected body sensors also make it possible to consider remote diagnosis and care . Recently, NASA even sent doctors to the ISS virtually to help astronauts stay in shape .

E-commerce could also benefit from immersive technologies: 3D cameras and connected sensors would make it possible to transmit the exact measurements of customers and to try (virtually) their choices in virtual fitting rooms without moving.

It is also envisaged that GPS navigation will become “VPS” navigation (for Visual positioning system ): with navigation glasses based on augmented reality, as well as sound and haptic feedback, it would become more intuitive. Such a prototype targeting the elderly was developed in 2018 at Telecom ParisTech in France.

Finally, and although it is in its infancy, research in the field of “augmented flavor” aims to develop olfactory devices for smelling perfumes or tasting dishes from a distance .

What can we virtualize?

All the senses are the subject of recent scientific and technological progress: vision, touch, hearing, smell, taste, but also the senses of movement, balance, heat, for example. In this sense, a flexible, miniaturized and wireless olfactory interface was thus developed for virtual reality at the University of Hong Kong in 2023.

In the visual modality, devices vary in level of immersion: from low-immersion smartphone screens, to semi-immersive devices like curved screens and mixed reality headsets, to immersive devices like VR (virtual reality) headsets . . The more these headsets become economically affordable, lightweight and self-contained, the more the adoption of this technology increases . The community anticipates that the next-generation Apple Vision Pro mixed reality headset announced on June 5, 2023 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference will be a major step towards mainstream adoption of immersive technology, as 2G in 2007 for the adoption of smartphones.

The sound modality often accompanies its visual immersion devices through 3D spatialized sound (traditional stereo sound is broadcast in just two channels, left and right). Spatial sound adds an extra dimension by introducing vertical, horizontal and depth sound localization information. This technology is now well mastered and widely used in the field of video games.

For touch, there are so-called “intrusive” devices (because they are bulky) such as haptic gloves and body suits; and other less invasive ultra-thin devices as well as connected artificial skins are in development.

Other more playful devices such as connected artificial mouths or connected sex toys foreshadow the future development of the “adult” industry on the Internet of tomorrow.

The risks of the immersive web

Today, immersive technologies already pose significant ethical challenges , with potential risks to mental health, including depersonalization/derealization disorder. They are also subject to serious concerns related to personal neglect of users’ (real) bodies, and real physical environments. They can also be used to record personal data which could be deployed in a way that threatens privacy and presents a danger related to the manipulation of beliefs, emotions and behaviors of users.

These challenges will be accentuated with the immersive web. Even if initiatives exist to ethically frame the use of virtual reality , the addictive aspect of the web and the intrusive aspect of the IoT pose new challenges and require more effort for the protection of users.

Insecurity, invasion of privacy, social isolation, pornographic crimes, virtual crimes, headaches, physical injuries or addiction, all these dangers will be accentuated and will have to attract attention both designers and user representatives for safer and more ethical use.

Author Bio: Ahmed Azough is Professor of Virtual Reality and Computer Vision at Pôle Léonard de Vinci