Connecting the possibilities
Bell-Western 5G partnership exploring digital solutions to real-world challenges
By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87
Imagine a rush-hour intersection where a cellular network analyzes vehicles’ motion, speed and direction and, in real time, helps drivers avoid collisions.
Or, picture yourself beaming into an online lecture, with a 360-degree interactive view of the classroom and lab that’s so real you almost forget it’s virtual.
These scenarios are near realities for eight new Western-funded projects, whose researchers are examining ways the university’s unique Bell-Western 5G network can transform lives for the better.
“It’s all about connectivity: connecting people to people, people to places, people to things,” said kinesiology professor Kevin Shoemaker, associate vice-president (research), whose work also includes developing an app that uses ultra-fast 5G to help students improve mental health and activity.
The partnership and newly activated network provides a living lab where researchers are testing the technological properties of 5G and gaining insights into its applications as a communications multi-tool: remote, robot-assisted surgeries with real-time, lag-free responses; app development with game-changing speed and resolution; big-data number-crunching; enhanced security for drones.
“We want our electronic, digital existence to be seamlessly similar to our in-person existence: fast, and capable of doing many complex things at one time,” said biology professor and associate vice-president (research) Bryan Neff.“ There’s just a whole lot of things we can do now that just weren’t possible before this,” Shoemaker added.
First and only of its kind
The 5G technology offers exponentially faster connection, ultra-low latency (minimal lag-time between sending/receiving signals), higher upload/download speeds, improved security, and greater reliability than previous-generation cellular networks.
“Western is the only university in Canada that has a fully functional 5G network up and running,” said Peter White, Western’s executive director of government relations and strategic partnerships.
Five 5G cell towers provide complete coverage to campus, including the Western Research Park, White said.
“It’s fully integrated into the Bell commercial network so that researchers are able to test their research in a live, real-world environment,” he added.
Western has committed $1 million towards research projects that test the network’s technology and application.
As telecommunications companies build and provide access to 5G networks in coming months and years, Western’s research provides a valuable head-start in understanding and developing its potential.
Calming traffic chaos
Take, for example, the conundrum of traffic collisions and how technology can prevent humans from making costly and life-threatening mistakes.
“We are using the underlying assumption that everything is connected using 5G technology: all the cars on the road, and cyclists and pedestrians,” said Western computer science professor Anwar Haque, an expert in next-gen telecommunications networks and cyber-security.
In his project, all the connected devices communicate with a server that receives information and with intelligent algorithms that analyze the proximity of people and objects to each other and to an intersection.
Once the algorithm detects a high probability of a collision, the server can then send an alert to users’ cellphones or car infotainment systems to warn them to evade a crash.
The technology’s hyper-precise positioning capabilities – a matter of locating users within centimetres instead of metres, a significant improvement from those of conventional technologies – could make it a lifesaver for vulnerable road users, including blind people or cyclists in a driver’s blindspot.
Haque expects to test a prototype of the research, using 5G-phone-equipped vehicles and pedestrians, within a few months.
“This has to be real-time use because a lot of information needs to be collected and analyzed and communicated super-fast. If it’s going to work, it also needs to have excellent signal quality and reliability – you don’t want a signal dropping unexpectedly when the stakes are so high,” he said. “All those technical requirements are possible with the Bell 5G research network we’re able to use.”
In another Western-funded project, Haque is also testing a proprietary technology that would help drivers locate available parking spaces in a parking lot, without endlessly circling to find an open spot.
“Unlike other systems, it requires no sensors, cameras or other equipment in the parking lot, only a cellphone, and it isn’t weather-dependent.”
Next-level virtual classrooms
Paul Frewen, a professor of psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry who is also cross-appointed to the psychology department, is working to test real-time, 360-degree virtual teaching – allowing students to virtually attend classes or labs.
The technology offers potential for a much greater sense of physical presence – and engagement – for students, Frewen said. That, in turn, benefits learning.
“Especially with the pandemic and the move to online learning, there was a loss of physical presence between instructor and students,” he said.
There was also a loss of social connection, both among students and between students and their instructors.
“Virtual reality is known for evoking a sense of being present in the virtual environment,” he said. “We thought, if we’re going to be limited to only physical distancing, could we use this (360-degree online learning) to mitigate the impact of social distancing?”
In 360-degree teaching, front and back lenses of the cameras record simultaneously.“
The instructor can show something in a very hands-on way. For the viewer, it’s like being beamed into the physical environment where the teaching is taking place.”
Frewen has used 360 teaching successfully in asynchronous (recorded) lectures that students play back through VR headsets on their computers. Students feel more connected to learning than in conventionally recorded, one-way lectures, his early studies show.
But taking it a step further, to a live, ultra-fast system, would be a game-changer.
A 10-minute, recorded 360-degree video in 4G, for example, would use up to 2 GB of users’ data; whereas 5G can stream large files quickly and bring students’ presence into the classroom.
“5G is going to give us some new capabilities for seamless, lag-free, livestreamed synchronous learning.
“Our hope is that it can help students feel more connected to learning – and, by reducing social distancing, improve their mental health.”
Tech for mental health
Shoemaker is testing a technology that addresses students’ mental health through biofeedback devices that work with a 5G-enabled phone.
Funded in part by Western’s Parr Centre for Thriving, the project aims to help students reduce their negative stress. Biofeedback devices detect an elevated heart rate, sweatiness, temperature or blood pressure as signals of increased stress.
An augmented-reality program then enables the student to mitigate their anger or anxiety by introducing visualized mindfulness or breathing activities that encourage thriving.
To develop this approach, the plan is to bring the research to at least 50 student volunteers living in residence. All the projects are expected to be live-tested this year.