How Collaborative VR and 5G could change the face of healthcare


Accessing healthcare is a very personal thing, typically involving you and your healthcare provider meeting face-to-face and in private. However, that’s not always possible, based on the provider’s or patient’s location or ability to travel.

That’s why “virtual” healthcare – the use of mobile technology, virtual reality, video, and other platforms to facilitate patient/caregiver interaction – is gaining traction in the healthcare industry. As technology evolves and people become more comfortable with the concept of telemedicine, the nature of care delivery is changing.

And we’re just at the beginning. Tomorrow’s 5G technology – with its high speeds, massive bandwidth, and latency faster than the blink of an eye – could elevate virtual healthcare to new levels, enabling even more effective remote care.

Professor Steven Feiner, and his staff and students at Columbia University’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Laboratory are experimenting with virtual reality (VR) over Verizon’s pre-commercial 5G technology at Alley, a co-working space and site of Verizon’s 5G incubator in New York City. Their aim is to create a digital alternative to in-person motor rehabilitation therapy sessions using VR.

“We’re interested in how a very, very fast network can make it possible for people to be able to communicate better and to be able to perform tasks together, whether they’re located in the same place or in different places,” he said.

Creating a collaborative virtual environment in which the therapist and patient use VR to perform exercises focused on motor rehabilitation when they’re both in different locations not only requires an ultra-high speed network, but also one that provides very low latency for precise, real-time movement and interaction. The solution the Columbia researchers designed consists of patient and therapist donning VR eyewear and holding VR controllers to manipulate a virtual platform to roll and bounce a virtual ball on its surface. The signals from each set of eyewear and controllers travel across the 5G connection to a server 20 miles away and back in near real time, effectively approximating in-person interaction with a physical platform and ball that respond to even the slightest movement from either user.

“We’ve been able to use the 5G connection to perform experiments that prove this to be a viable approach,” said Professor Feiner. “In the future, this could impact where therapists can administer treatment and how patients can access rehabilitation resources.”

Looking ahead, Professor Feiner and team plan to continue to experiment with the 5G technology and to test additional parameters and applications.

“The dream that we as technologists have is that of people being able to interact with each other as naturally as possible when they’re not in the same place.”

Verizon’s 5G incubator at Alley is giving Columbia and other innovators access to pre-commercial 5G technology to develop and refine their 5G use cases.