In his first guest article, Dean Bubley explores People-to-process communications and telehealth technology trends driven by Covid-19 and how these trends suggest the need for a new class of communications platform. A platform which can give flexible, assured and secure service for complex, device-rich voice and video scenarios.
Person-to-person vs people-to-process communication
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many commentators have discussed the central role of connectivity and communications. Much of the planet’s population has been reliant on home broadband networks for teleworking, videoconferencing, telehealth and home education. Online shopping, food delivery and entertainment services have leapt in importance. Suppliers of data-centre capacity, home broadband and residential Wi-Fi equipment have seen surges in demand.
Meanwhile critical services such as healthcare and public safety, as well as scientific research and collaboration, have relied upon reliable – and sometimes newly-extended – networks and cloud-based services. Service providers have stepped up with more generous data allowances and free access for key workers, while governments have made more spectrum available for mobile networks.
But although the networks themselves have received a lot of attention, there is also evolution occurring for essential processes enabled by real-time communications. Existing use-cases for voice, video and messaging have grown, while various new applications have emerged.
Video-calls and conferences using Zoom or Microsoft Teams have had millions of new users, but are still largely the same product as in the past. Many authorities have set up new hotlines for infection advice or employment issues, as well as large-scale contact tracing operations – often with agents working from home. More directly reshaped by the pandemic has been telemedicine, especially remote video consultations with doctors – and even vets.
New communications models for complex workflows
Looking to the future, we can already see the pandemic as a pivot-point and accelerant for advances in process transformation – from health and social-care, to smart buildings and industrial automation. Many of these will intersect with audio-visual communications, as remote workflows will often remain critical.
This involves the invention of new critical “process-to-person” models, integrating additional communications functions or services beyond those found in normal contact-centres, conferencing applications or mobile notifications.
COVID-19 has made many organisations rethink both immediate and medium-to-longer term workflows, while also thinking about looming economic constraints. For instance, the ubiquitous public touch-screen trend up to 2019 is now reversing, with new user interaction processes more oriented towards apps on personal phones, or voice-based activation.
Public QR codes – long a common sight in some Asian countries – are now displayed globally in restaurants and bars for accessing our own private menus, as well as sign-up forms for contact tracing.
As well as new apps, there is a growing need to blend voice and video capabilities with other technologies and requirements:
Social-distancing and infection-control requirements
For example, the use of QR codes and personal phones, instead of buttons and touch-screens to set up calls for door-entry systems. Proximity data from wearable devices can link into coronavirus contact-tracing calls made by officials.
IoT and event triggers
For example, if a sensor records a particular event, a system can automatically set up a call between Person A and Person B, or link a video camera to a control centre in response. This is especially useful where sensors already generate network-based signals, such as for telecare systems (see below).
Economic pressures will mean older electronic systems such as alarms may now remain in place for years longer. Yet where possible, there will be a need to link them into new workflows for remote monitoring, control and communications.
Many COVID-related systems now embed audio or video inputs or outputs, such as thermal cameras in public places, or security cameras and drones for policing quarantine. These may well link to video communications, or verbal challenge-response mechanisms. Robots are being used for numerous tasks, from automating swab tests, to disinfection of public spaces.
There are numerous situations in which communications sessions cross different legal domains. This includes sectors in which call-recording is essential (eg financial services) or where there are safety mandates (such as elevator emergency-call buttons). In the post-COVID era, we can expect a variety of smart-city and smart-building regulations – for example around occupancy-detection for meeting rooms, monitoring ventilation-system filters or video analytics enforcing mask-wearing rules.
IoT accessories may generate information that can be blended into human voice and video conversations. For instance, a remote doctor may obtain live data during a video consultation, from a connected thermometer or pill-bottle.
These types of use-cases are not directly equivalent to the “long tail” developer communities targeted by many commercial CPaaS (communications platform-as-a-service) providers. The healthcare and public-safety dimension will need a different type of solution, sometimes involving customisation to ensure compliance with regulations, or interfacing with legacy automation protocols.
Telecare: already a priority, accelerating in the post-COVID era
Communications technology for social care and assisted living has been growing in importance for some time. Senior citizens, people with significant disabilities and other vulnerable groups are gaining access to a wide variety of well-being tools, alarms, monitoring systems and emergency notification systems. Information and alerts can be shared with healthcare staff and family.
Telecare is a subset of telehealth, alongside telemedicine. The healthcare-critical nature of this sector, together with the physical or mental limitations of some users, can mean ordinary phone calls, mobile apps and SMS-style messaging are inappropriate. Instead, specialised devices, custom-designed interaction flows and ease-of-use features are central for communications functions – as well as reliable and trusted platforms.
For example, tablets, display screens, intercom-type systems, or wearables can have better ergonomics for people with limited dexterity than phones. Motion-sensors, cameras and smart-home systems can generate alerts, for instance if doors are opened at unusual times of the night. Automated audio announcements from connected objects (lighting, cooking appliances, medication-bottles etc) may prompt action with greater effect, compared to a smartphone message or notification.
As well as obvious safety and health drivers, there are also economic justifications for telecare – for instance reducing the need for emergency visits by care-workers.
In future, the number of over-65s will grow significantly. While some will be in specialised care homes, many will continue to live independently in their own homes. However, they will still face increased risks from conditions such as dementia, preventable injuries from falls, undiagnosed strokes or other medical events which need careful monitoring and treatment. Again, appropriate communication systems can take a central role, such as wearables with voice capability.
Telehealth and telecare technology trends
The COVID-19 pandemic is now giving even greater urgency to the telecare trend, as well as stimulating extra use-cases for integration of voice and video elements into new care systems and processes, as well as the wider telehealth domain:
- Greater use of video “visits” by friends, family and medical/care staff, using specialised apps or in-browser communications designed for a care setting, rather than normal business or consumer apps.
- Relatives and other caregivers, concerned about medical emergencies, falls, or appropriate use of medication may have to limit in-person care visits, because of infection risks. Well-designed communications solutions – for instance video calls on tablets – can enable adequate monitoring, while still providing the reassurance of a human voice, friendly face and conversation.
- Remote monitoring of health and wellbeing parameters can provide early warning of COVID symptoms. Connected thermometers, blood oximeters and other devices are likely to rise in importance, perhaps used together with video-based healthcare consultations.
- Remote monitoring and diagnosis of cognitive and mental-health issues is rising up the agenda, for instance among people quarantined after travel, or isolated with COVID symptoms. For longer-term care situations, especially involving loneliness, various forms of “brain training” can include voice or visual communications elements. This could include
- Where people are quarantined, assisted-living technology can help social-care workers assess the need for food or drug deliveries, cleaning or maintenance.
The pandemic has also highlighted the risks of elder people grouped in centralised care-homes. There has already been a move in some countries towards caring for people in their own homes, rather than institutions, and this trend will likely be accelerated by the toll of infections and deaths seen in the first half of 2020.
The accelerating people-to-process communication trend implies a new class of CPaaS
The pandemic is accelerating a number of existing communications-enabled process trends, and leading to the introduction of many new workflows. While many of the activities for the “new normal” can be performed via apps or websites alone, others will still need the involvement of a human – but remote from the device or function being operated, for reasons of both efficiency and social-distancing.
Alarms, monitoring systems and various health/medical products may trigger calls or video sessions – and a desire to avoid onsite visits, especially to vulnerable people. There will be a mix of new IoT classes, and older legacy devices to integrate – and a wide array of institutions, regulations and users.
The traditional metaphor of a bi-directional “call” may not always be appropriate. Sometimes one-way audio announcements may be best fit for a given application, or hybrid audio/video interactions. Customised user-experience flows for “process-to-person” communications are increasingly important.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dean Bubley is a global outspoken industry analyst and futurist, with huge experience in areas such as CPaaS, WebRTC, 5G and telecom strategy. He is known for his visionary but challenging opinions, his online presence as @disruptivedean, and is regularly seen at live and virtual conferences around the world and quoted in publications such as The Economist, FT and Wall Street Journal.