by Larry Stofko

How virtual reality changes health care

Jul 07, 2016
Emerging TechnologyFacebookGoogle

The VR ecosystem is expanding before our eyes.

Until recently, Virtual Reality (VR) has only really been seen as a technology for the gaming and entertainment industries. However, given recent advancements, this immersive, 3D experience of space and geometry is no longer just for fun. According to Bloomberg, some of the world’s biggest tech companies have invested over $4 billion in virtual and augmented reality since 2010, and health care plays a big part in these investments.

VR headsets make you feel like you’re actually in the room, the doctor’s office or anywhere else you want to be. There are countless applications that can transform how we interact with the world, especially health care. We already have 24-hour patient email and telephone consultations and live video chats with physicians. VR is just another tool that will help facilitate patient care.

VR technology can also serve as an excellent tool for education and training in health care, providing more realistic experiences. A 3D perspective can help clinicians access consulting physicians while also planning for more precise patient treatments through a more accurate view of conditions for surgery.

Through VR, patient-side rehabilitation exercises can be done in the comfort of home with guidance of physical therapists. After initial instruction, patients could potentially cut back a dozen visits by providing live, interactive vital feedback directly into their medical records. Handheld remote controls, similar to how the Wii home video game is used, could give patients that sense of motion that could be tracked.

Patients with pain or mental health disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, could benefit from the technology, as well as patients suffering from various phobias such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia. A University College London study suggests VR therapy could also help reduce depressive symptoms.

The VR ecosystem is expanding before our eyes, and content creation and richer experiences are proliferating. Software development is also just beginning. This is just a peek at what we see happening:

Google Cardboard: At only $15, the Google Cardboard makes VR a possibility for everyone. It turns a smartphone into a VR headset using just one piece of cardboard folded to enclose the device, and has already shown its capabilities for patient care.

Dr. Juan Carlos Muniz, a pediatric cardiologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, FL, used the device to make a 3D model of a little girl’s heart in preparation for the complex surgery to amend her life-threatening condition. She was born with half a heart and one lung. In collaboration with an iPhone app called Sketchfab, the cardiac team was able to see the girl’s heart in 3D from a variety of angles quite easily and elegantly with Cardboard. This allowed Dr. Redmond Burke, chief of cardiovascular surgery, and his team to carefully plan the complex procedure, including the safest and most effective points of incision.

Cardboard can even be created for free using the blueprints on their site. The model Muniz used was only $20.00, which produced a priceless end result for the girl’s family. Google offers developers the tools to create apps for Cardboard, allowing new possibilities to be created.

Facebook: In 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion for the Oculus Rift, a VR headset invented by a Long Beach, California teen. It may one day connect everyone on earth. Mark Zuckerberg has said he envisions consulting with a doctor face-to-face just by putting goggles on in your home.

HTC Vive: Combining a VR headset and laser guidance, the HTC Vive allows people to have a truly interactive experience. Like Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift, with close-up 360-degree viewing, the HTC Vive is transforming health care education.

Sony: Sony will be releasing its PlayStation VR peripheral later this year in order to follow in the footsteps of Oculus.

Samsung Gear VR: Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus, allows you to use your phone for a 360-degree VR experience. Perhaps Apple will dip its toes into VR too, but it’s yet to be seen.

Microsoft HoloLens: Microsoft HoloLens offers the first see-through holographic computer viewed using smart-glass headsets. These devices could offer a whole world of potential for health care.

Halo Neuroscience: Raised $9 million Series A, led by Lux, for a neurotechnology platform for athletes via Neuropriming to improve brain response to training and drive accelerated gains in performance.

MindMaze: Swiss company raised $100 million ($1.1 billion valuation) to use virtual reality to help stroke victims in their recovery. The round was led by Hinkuja Group. The devices use virtual and augmented reality combined with sensors that track the user’s motion and display interactive digital environments through the goggles.

Constant Therapy: Raised $2 million for a brain rehab app that supports patients with traumatic brain injury, stroke, aphasia and learning disabilities. It creates personalized user profiles and tailors exercises to improve brain function.

VR shows promise for health care research too. It could replace the need for face-to-face health care market research, especially if it can afford researchers the same tone of voice, facial cues and body language opportunities as being physically in front of the respondent.

At our Innovation Lab, we are exploring potential applications of VR in health care such as research, training, education, surgery, patient rehabilitation and more. With recent and continuing advancements in VR technology and its increasing adoption, we feel that VR will prove to be invaluable across multiple areas of health care.

VR is always going to be virtual, running second to the real thing. Yet, it will serve as an important supplemental technology that will continue to expand its capabilities into the future.