NICTA develops WebRTC platform with an eye on allied health

ICT research and commercialisation organisation NICTA is looking for pilot customers for its new WebRTC-based telepresence platform, which is aimed at both the health and government services sectors and at the business community.

NICTA recently demonstrated the potential of the technology at Singapore’s CommunicAsia expo, where WebRTC product manager Silvia Pfeiffer and the director of NICTA's broadband and digital economy business team, Terry Percival, held a workshop on its potential applications.

NICTA has built several platforms on top of the open source WebRTC (real time communications) standard, which allows for video conferencing between browsers as well as real-time document sharing. These include the Virtual Counter, a telepresence kiosk that has the potential to deliver virtual face-to-face government services such as Medicare enquiries or passport renewals, as well as a resource for organisations wanting to set up their own WebRTC services.

WebRTC is being looked at with great interest in the telehealth field as it provides greater ease of use than proprietary online video conferencing apps like Skype along with greater security. It also includes a data channel and document sharing capabilities that Skype and other consumer-based apps like Facetime do not. For example, doctors can share medical notes or clinical photographs and discuss them while they are video conferencing with other doctors, all through their web browsers.

In Australia, it is already in use by telehealth provider GP2U and telehealth advisory firm Attend Anywhere. It is currently being investigated by health call centre provider HealthDirect Australia for its potential use in its telephone-based GP after hours and nurse triage services, and is being trialled in Victoria to provide telehealth services to people with cystic fibrosis.

Dr Percival said it was also being used in a project with Sydney-based charity Royal Far West, which provides educational services to people in rural and remote NSW, including speech pathology for children. In fact, Dr Percival sees the potential for WebRTC-based telehealth in allied healthcare as the most immediate opportunity for the technology.

“We have trials going in tele-speech pathology, and that is related to both provision of tele-speech pathology to children and also looking at the performance of WebRTC for evaluating children,” he said. “There are two things: you do the initial evaluation on the child and then you provide the service, so we have two projects going there.”

While most telehealth in Australia is either done out of hospitals using proprietary video conferencing suites or between GPs or nurses and specialists using Skype, Dr Percival said there were several advantages that WebRTC has over those models.

“One is it's a peer-to-peer delivery and it is encrypted, it is digitally encrypted between the two ends, which brings security and also better quality,” he said.

“WebRTC offers a data channel which is also encrypted, and the third advantage is that because it's built in a browser you can share browser-based documents.

“The document sharing and the data channel let you do the sort of things that we do like interactive cursors. You can see the other person's cursor, so you can point to objects on the screen and the other person can see where you are and you can see where they are.

“Obviously in speech pathology it is all about pictures and images so you can point to the picture or the image or you can get the child to point to the picture or the image. You can then add things like gamification to make it fun and literally add bells and whistles.

“WebRTC opens up a whole new area in allied health, particularly when you are treating people with shared documents, be it dietary advice, be it occupational therapy, be it speech pathology, even tele psychology. It is about sharing documents or images, so I think that it opens a whole new raft of applications.”

WebRTC is in itself just an open source standard, so it requires a web server to establish connections and apps to be built on top, which is where the commercialisation potential comes in to add further value. Companies around the world are beginning to offer WebRTC-based conferencing services for business and are working on how to integrate it with propriety suites such as LifeSize, Polycom and Cisco.

NICTA has built a service that it is now commercialising that provides the server connection as well as resources to design a web landing page for businesses. The idea is to offer a website with a template from which paid customers can build a WebRTC application to suit their needs in much the same way that online retailers can use e-commerce websites to set up their own online store.

“It's all very well if you just doing one-to-one video, but if you are starting to add documents as well and share images and things like that then there is a whole design process that you have to go through as well as all of the additional software,” Dr Percival said. “The data channel is there but you've got to know how to use it. Our plan is to do that to make it easy.”

NICTA is also running a trial with the University of Canberra's new Health Hub to set up three-way consults to train allied health students. WebRTC offers a very simple way to do three-way or multi-person video conferencing, another benefit it has over existing systems.

“We've given [UC] a demonstration system of a three-way teleconference which could be a nurse, a GP and a specialist and a shared image which can be annotated and pointed at,” he said.

“The other thing about WebRTC, although Skype can do it too, is bring in a third person on a mobile device. It isn't available yet but you could bring in the parent or relative at the beginning of the session, just for five minutes before or after a session to give them an update.

“You might want to bring them in on their smart phone just for five minutes or even in the middle of the session to show them something. They are the sort of changes that we think can happen. WebRCT on mobile devices works at the moment but not very well and that is something we are working on improving.”

For the government services sector, the idea is to provide a Virtual Counter that could allow citizens to interact with public services such as Medicare, the passport office or local councils. NICTA has developed technology that allows forms to be filled in interactively and digitally signed. For example, through WebRTC the government official can witness the citizen signing a document and the documents can then be shared. (A demonstration of the concept is available on YouTube.)

Dr Percival said NICTA had demonstrated the Virtual Counter to a number of government departments and is in ongoing discussions about trialling the technology in pilot projects. “It can be hard to integrate into the back-end systems and there is work involved, but it will come. Everyone can see the potential.”

While the Virtual Counter requires hardware, for healthcare it is a lot simpler. “Buy a camera and a decent PC and a good screen and you're there,” he said.

Posted in Allied Health

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