Virtual reality (VR) has gamers salivating all over the world and Microsoft last year had them virtually foaming at the mouth when the company released a video of Project X-Ray, a mixed reality video game. The demonstrator is shown wearing HoloLens goggles and a handheld device that, before every viewer’s eyes, became a cybernetic gun that enveloped the man’s hand and forearm, transforming him into that of a cyborg. Robots broke through the walls in the room while the demonstrator returned fire and upgraded his weaponry. Customizable for every environment, the room became a virtual battle field.
Since the 1990s, virtual reality software development has come a long way and today, we stand at the precipice of a new era where VR will become the next disruptive technology that changes the face of research, sports, entertainment, education, the military, car manufacturing and even the way we practice medicine. According to research and consulting firm IndustryARC, augmented and virtual reality in healthcare is predicted to generate $2.54 billion globally by 2020. Like Project X-Ray, augmented reality is a mix of the real and virtual worlds in contrast to virtual reality in which the entire experience is digital. This technology will break new ground in fields from PTSD and therapy to diagnostics and surgery.
The Royal London Hospital has already made its mark on history this last April. Dr. Shafi Ahmed performed the first ever 360 degree live broadcast operation made available on smart phone and VR headset. Specialized cameras were placed high above the operating table enabling thousands of viewers to observe a British patient in his 70s undergo a colon cancer operation. The entire procedure was watched live by medical students from the hospital and Queen Mary University Hospital through Google Cardboard VR headsets and smart phones. Dr. Ahmed believes the point is to allow medical professionals anywhere in the world the ability to see such videos and use them for training purposes.
Indeed, some training simulations are already being offered. At the UC Davis Center for Virtual Care, heart catheterization is one of the many simulations available. With fully immersive 3D operating room simulations, young doctors can face real life situations, gain experience and confidence as well as the ability to make snap decisions under pressure. Seasoned pros can even take advantage of simulations to fine tune their skills and learn how to best run their medical team. Other simulations at the center include performing a colonoscopy in addition to endoscopic, laparoscopic, robotic, and organ transplant surgery.
Apart from training, virtual organ models can help surgeons prepare for a delicate or complicated procedure thus increasing precision, decreasing complications and reducing trauma. If a patient needs a rare, life-saving procedure, an inexperienced surgeon can prepare in minutes. A doctor in Miami recently used Google cardboard to plan for an anaplasty on a baby born with only one lung and half a heart. Cardboard helped him see 3D images of the baby’s heart in a way he previously couldn’t which in the end saved her life. Beyond simulations, planning and training, virtual diagnostics and research models are on the horizon.
But don’t go thinking VR is only for doctors in the field of medicine, patient lives are also being transformed by the technology.
For amputees, phantom limb pain is a serious and chronic issue. This is where the brain continues to send signals to the missing arm or leg, causing shooting pains and even burning, itching tingling or electric sensations. With no way of shutting this phenomenon off, some amputees have even reported feeling an itch in the palm of their missing hand.
Treatment is often conducted using a mirror however, using a VR headset, researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden conducted an experiment with an amputee. They placed electrodes on what was left of the patient’s missing arm and strapped on a VR headset. This way, the patient could see that arm guiding a steering wheel as he virtually drove a car. The patient reported less pain overall and even periods of no pain at all during the course of treatment.
Taking on the challenge of mental health, VR has helps patients with fears of heights, large crowds and even public speaking through the method of virtual exposure therapy. Patients can face their fears without the unpredictability of the real world and deal with the emotions that follow. PTSD sufferers, in particular, have been targeted for VR therapy since the 90s. Now, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy that allows traumatic memories to be recalled and reframed through certain eye movements can be combined with VR. Some hospitals are already using VR to place veterans back into battlefield situations in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to help PTSD sufferers come to terms with their memories and move past them.
VR is also a new addition to the field of autism. While computers are a common form of therapy, VR is used to help autistic adults or children develop the skills necessary for independence which we often take for granted. A virtual environment is an ideal way of teaching autistic people practical skills like crossing a road in a safe environment before trying it in the real world. This particular simulation is used at the University of Haifa in Israel. The simulation shows a street with traffic lights and cars with which a child can learn to interact without placing them in danger or causing undue stress.
Other fields in which VR is being deployed are brain damage evaluation and rehabilitation, pain relief for burn victims, and help for the homebound and disabled. While healthcare has taken this new wave of technology by storm, applications are just getting started. In the future, we expect to see more seamless integration between VR and other innovations like big data, AI and so much more that change the face of medicine and bring advanced healthcare to millions more people around the world.