One in four U.S. adults - 61 million Americans - have a disability that impacts major life activities.1
The most common type of disability relates to mobility. According to the CDC, this category affects one in seven adults in the U.S.2 and includes people living with paralysis, amputation and chronic pain. They are veterans, stroke survivors and individuals whose mobility is impaired by neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis, ALS or Parkinson's. In 2016, 18.1% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 fell under this disability type.3
Nearly 5.4 million people in the United States live with some form of paralysis. Of that population, 41.8% are unable to work. In fact, only 15.5% of people living with paralysis between the ages of 18 and 64 years are employed.4
Breaking those statistics down further, that means 2,257,200 people in the U.S. are unable to work because of paralysis. Imagine if there were accessible technologies that enabled even a fraction of those individuals to increase their mobility, achieve greater independence or improve their ability to join the workforce.
How can 5G make a difference?
5G will provide the continuous connectivity, high speeds and low latency necessary for many assistive technologies to advance. New innovations will provide opportunities for broader applications. Autonomous cars, the iconic vision of 5G technology, would enable people previously forbidden to drive to travel the roadways independently, but there are a number of other innovative technologies emerging as well.
Virtual reality (VR) has numerous applications beyond gaming and entertainment. Research has shown the benefits of VR for physical therapy and rehabilitation across a broad range of medical conditions including those patients recovering after a stroke or spinal cord injury. VR provides an immersive experience that feels more like a game than rehab while allowing the therapist to collect broader patient data.
For example, when VR is used in conjunction with an assistive exoskeleton, it provides less of an institutional environment in which the patient can perform their visualization therapy to help with pain management. Sensors within the exoskeleton inform a therapist of the patient's biometrics and the progress being made. In other words, the exoskeleton relays how much work it is performing versus how much the patient is performing, as well as how well the patient uses the proper anatomical positioning to walk. This allows a patient's walking to progress more gradually without putting undue strain on them. In the meantime, it enables the neuroplasticity of the brain to catch up with new muscle memory sooner than it would without the technology.
The end goal of this type of technology is for eligible patients (those whose neural damage is not so extensive as to prevent recovery) to be able to walk independently at the end of rehab. Such independence keeps recovering patients out of wheelchairs and makes it more likely they will regain mobility.
Connectivity is essential to every component in this arrangement, from VR to data collection and exoskeleton functionality. VR enabled by 5G provides flexibility in its use for visualization therapy as well as a more cost effective solution when compared with wired VR kits. Once 5G reaches a point of ubiquity, people living with lower extremity paralysis could potentially use an exoskeleton to get from point A to point B.
AI Wheelchair Enhancements
For people who are reliant on wheelchairs, the potential begins with innovative wheelchair functions being enabled by 5G's continuous connectivity and the vast number of devices communicating on the Internet of Things (IoT). Assistive technologies like facial expression or head-movement wheelchair navigation and voice-activated wheelchair retrieval enables a level of independent living that previously would have been thought impossible.
Dr. Sirlantzis points out that the coming connected wheelchair will have intelligent, autonomous 3D mapping, the ability to detect events, scan the environment, geotag and upload to the cloud. These capabilities will facilitate communication with another wheelchair user who is coming to the same point of obstruction in hopes of enabling them to avoid it. For those types of connected capabilities, the ultra-reliable, low latency performance characteristics of a 5G network will be essential.
Brain-Computer Interface (BCI)
Researchers at Duke University combined VR technology, exoskeleton potential and a brain-computer interface to enable a Brazilian man who is paralyzed from his chest down to walk independently.7 In fact, the man did so in front of an international audience at the start of the 2014 World Cup.8
At an elementary level, it worked like this: The person living with paralysis used virtual reality to learn the haptic tactile feedback display that operated the exoskeleton. In other words, he learned to control the legs of his avatar in the VR world using only his mind. That's where the BCI enters. A brain-computer interface (BCI) uses hardware and software to enable a person's brain signals (EEG) to control a computer or machine.
Once the subject learned to control his avatar's legs with his mind, the transition to operating the exoskeleton's robot legs was relatively easy. The exoskeleton itself communicated tactile feedback to the brain allowing the man to sense when his "legs" were extended or his "feet" were touching the ground.
If ever there was an instance where continuous connectivity was essential, it would be when a person needed their brain and their robotic legs to stay in communication. BCI isn't limited to the human brain communicating with exoskeletons. With 5G, a world of innovative options that enable more independent living for stroke and spinal cord injury patients in the world at large may be possible.
With 5G chips, network equipment, and mobile devices and a foundation of years of 5G research and development, Samsung is working tirelessly to bring 5G to full fruition.9 5G will be the technology infrastructure that enables more possibilities than ever imagined. It will provide continuous connectivity, high speeds and low latency to advance assistive technologies and enable new innovations that will enhance mobility, improve pain management and broaden opportunities for individuals with mobility challenges.