The Caring Cloud: The Role of 5G in Healthcare VR and AR

JC KuangAnalysis, Business Transformation, Virtual Reality

American, European, and Asian markets are racing to complete infrastructure research and updates necessary to bring 5G mobile broadband networks to life. VR and AR industries stand to benefit enormously from this new technology, which boasts massively increased transfer speeds, on-demand network slicing, and unprecedented reliability, due to its burdensome data processing requirements and a need for low latency streaming. The healthcare field, in particular, is one of many fields poised to maximize the potential of faster, smarter, and more efficient VR and AR platforms.

Over the last half-decade, the medical field has experienced no shortage of technological breakthroughs that promise to disrupt every level of the healthcare industry, from actual patient care and practice to training & education. To cite specific cases, companies such as Medical Realities, BioflightVR, and Breakaway Games have developing proprietary VR experiences which leverage the immersive nature of the medium to not only improve education and training of inexperienced practitioners, but also provide educators and supervisors a more rich and easily quantifiable dataset from which to  evaluate the progress made by learners.

However, VR has yet to see mass adoption in the medical field. Experts such as consulting firm Healthsense’s Rick Crohn are citingthe same sort of hurdles that we find with a lot of technology solutions in healthcare that have not yet become fully baked into practice,” such as prohibitive cost, relatively poor accessibility and mobility in hardware and software, and general skepticism from practitioners who may either be adverse to new breakthroughs or unconvinced of VR’s effectiveness in the field.

Instead of lugging around bulky computer terminals, or investing in expensive aftermarket solutions for tether-free HMDs, advances in 5G networks could potentially revolutionize these cumbersome platforms and finally make healthcare XR viable on a large scale. Currently, Chinese companies such as ZTE and Huawei have been making significant strides in the development of the various components of 5G.

Infrastructure Working Smarter, Not Harder

Cloud rendering and cloud computing are not new concepts in technology, but by incrementally improving the capabilities of mobile broadband networks, more and more services become available for use without having to resort to pricey and cumbersome client-side hardware. In 2017, TPCast and Huawei announced their intent to collaborate on a cloud computing system designed to offload a large portion of graphical rendering tasks to offsite computers and deliver a fully rendered VR experience over a 5G connection. Features such as network slicing could further help network providers to more effectively monitor and control data traffic to deliver whatever combination of bandwidth, speed, and redundancy best services a given platform, be it cloud-rendered VR, autonomous transportation, or even the massive smart grids of the future.

By preserving and potentially improving latency of a VR experience, comfortable, tether-free headsets for the masses could be easily implemented in a limitless number of healthcare scenarios. Applications such as BioflightVR’s pediatric trauma simulations, which combine rich 3D models and AI-powered curriculum customization to simulate real-world conditions, could get away with less local data processing and deliver a greater portion of their experiences from a centralized cloud. Similar applications could potentially leverage subscription-based business models as opposed to full software licenses.

Meanwhile, patient-side applications such as Applied VR’s Pain RelieVR, which has seen great success in clinical trials for pain reduction, could see increased adoption as reduced hardware requirements result in sleeker and more accessible VR hardware, lessening the “known ‘digital divide’ between generations with regard to comfort and familiarity using digital technologies.”

As hardware and software manufacturers learn to develop more efficient ways to distribute the workloads necessary to realize quality VR, and infrastructures continue to carry more and more data through the cloud, it seems inevitable that the barriers for industries such as healthcare to enter VR will continue to fall.