Is there a place for AR and VR in healthcare?

February 9, 2017
by John Websell

For decades Britain has been able to boast one of if not the finest healthcare system in the world; now, however, the much-lauded NHS faces many problems. Doctors are in short supply due in no small part to the increasingly hostile working conditions, A&E facilities are being put under an interminable amount of pressure, and patients are having to wait weeks and sometimes months for their treatment to begin. Because of these and sundry other issues, the importance of technological innovation in the medical profession has never been greater, and while there are many exciting gadgets currently being researched and tested, two particularly exciting examples already in use are AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality).

These outwardly unrelated technologies have emerged as highly effective tools for the amelioration and treatment of a number of illnesses and diseases, most noticeably dementia; an especially virulent malady.

To shine a light on this underrepresented area of healthcare, ABRS Ltd. has written a brief summary of the emerging role of AR and VR in modern medicine, touching on the future of the field as well.

Augmented reality

Not to be confused with virtual reality – a common staple of science fiction for decades – the concept of augmented reality is probably best illuminated by the wildly popular mobile game Pokémon Go. Generally speaking, AR functions by projecting a computer-generated set of images onto a real-world location using a mobile phone or another such device. In Pokémon Go, AR creates the illusion that your living room is overflowing with the series’ colourful little critters, as demonstrated by the game’s official trailer. Described in such terms, it may be difficult to imagine how this technology could ever be used to aid scientists in the advancement of healthcare, but in actuality, researchers utilise augmented reality tech in a multitude of ways; from training medical students of all levels to treating a diverse range of conditions.

Sight is fundamental to the way we interpret the world around us so that even a partial loss of vision is usually accompanied by a host of challenges that can take individual’s years to fully adapt to. Fortunately, augmented reality can provide invaluable support when it comes to recognising faces, reading books, avoiding obstacles and much else besides. The VA-ST visor, for instance, registers the outline of a person’s face before projecting these contours onto the wearer’s headset display, making it easier for the person using the VA-ST to recognise individuals. Additionally, it’s claimed the headset can improve one’s overall visual capabilities at times when ambient contrast is poor. In fact, the VA-ST was so impressive it was one of the Google Impact Challenge winners in 2014.

It might not be quite as useful as the VA-ST practically speaking, nevertheless, a company named Current Studios has developed a tablet game for children about to enter an MRI scanner. The app works by measuring the child’s patience and ability to remain motionless for long periods of time, before relaying this information to the attending doctor’s tablet dashboard, allowing them to determine whether or not general anaesthesia will be required for the duration of the procedure (MRI’s require perfect stillness in order to be effective, thus fidgety individuals are sometimes medicated first). Apart from relaxing young patients without the need for drugs, the game should prevent the administration of anaesthetic in situations when it’s not actually necessary, which is advisable when treating children.

Nowhere are the therapeutic qualities of augmented reality better exemplified than in dementia care. The charity Alzheimer’s Australia Vic, for example, has designed an app that, on the surface at least, would appear to be of great benefit to those suffering from a degenerative mental condition. Named The Dementia-Friendly Home, it targets the spatial and visual challenges that emerge as the disease progresses in two ways: firstly, it generates a digital floorplan of the person’s house to help them navigate; secondly, it provides both carers and patients with various, inexpensive suggestions for making the home more dementia-friendly (hence the name). The app is currently available in the UK for just £1.99, however, it seems likely there’ll be other, more sophisticated versions entering the market in the near future.

Virtual reality

As a result of overzealous medical malpractice lawyers and the abundance of information available online highlighting the things that can go wrong during an operation, recent generations of trainee surgeons oftentimes find themselves relegated to observing or assisting a senior consultant for much of their training, missing out on the extensive first-hand experience they require. Consequently, hospitals across the UK have become increasingly reliant on simulations to fill in these knowledge gaps and, while AR certainly has its uses in this respect, the immersive nature of virtual reality sets it apart as the go-to digital educational tool.

The technology available at the moment is really quite astounding, testing not only the fine motor skills of the prospective doctors but also their ability to react in challenging and dynamic situations; there are 52 such pre-programmed scenarios for cardiologists alone. Moreover, in response to the recent influx of sophisticated, affordable VR headsets like the Oculus Rift in the gaming world, a number of surgeons have plans to combine these virtual reality systems with the state of the art haptic devices and robotics currently available in an effort to recreate operating conditions with a level of veracity hitherto unknown. Excitingly, over 20 specialist simulation centres like that just described can be found across the UK at this very moment.

Elsewhere, the appropriately named professor Roger Kneebone has devised plans that will see VR technology utilised as a tool for reducing the feelings of anxiety experienced by some pre-op patients. Professor Kneebone wants to design a programme that makes it possible for nervous patients to study forthcoming procedures in-depth and explore the very operating theatre itself prior to surgery, the goal being to help patients prepare for the operation.

Once again, it’s the alleviating effects of virtual reality on the symptoms of dementia that best illustrates the value of this technology in a medical context. Our favourite example of this comes from a Eurogamer article published earlier this year which describes the efforts of a company called Tribemix. It offers a range of VR experiences designed specifically to relax dementia sufferers, letting each individual inhabit a digital simulacrum of their favourite locations (verdant parks, seaside promenades and the like) as an alternative to physically transporting patients to these places, which can be tricky to organise not to mention distressing for the individual. It should be noted that Tribemix utilises 3D modelling technology to generate the landscapes, rather than photographic representations of real-world places. Although this does reduce the realism of the experiences to a certain degree, as Tribemix founder Alex Smale says, this approach gives them the freedom to tailor each scenario to match the user’s needs, and therefore ensure patients are as comfortable as possible.

Tribemix’s innovative use of VR isn’t for everyone of course, which is why the firm only allows those who volunteer. For those who are willing to try one of these computer-generated worlds for themselves, however, studies of user data indicates there are a variety of benefits associated with exposure to such virtual reality environments, in terms of relaxing patients and offering temporary relief from the emotional swings caused by the condition.

Highly adaptable

Although the emphasis throughout this article has been just a handful of isolated examples, hopefully, we’ve managed to convey the full extent of the adaptability of both AR and VR devices in healthcare.

The most exciting thing of all is that we’re still in the early days of VR and AR technology. Given another few decades of research and development, the practical applications of this and other technologies in the field of medicine could transform healthcare across the globe and, in the UK, support our beleaguered, hardworking doctors.

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