Mixed reality, extrasensory, and other trends for healthcare VR

By Dave Muoio
03:24 pm

As virtual and augmented reality technologies continue to improve, researchers and entrepreneurs continue to investigate the role these tools may play in healthcare. In an educational session at HIMSS18 in Las Vegas Tuesday, presenters described the technologies’ current roadmap, highlighting persisting roadblocks and novel strategies incorporating other technologies.

After describing the ancestry of VR — which ranged from flight simulators in the 1920s to short-lived video gaming devices in the early 1990s — Rick Krohn, president of the consulting firm HealthSense summarized early investigations of how VR is already being used to treat phobias, provide physical therapy, train health professionals, and promote wellness.

While these and other implementations stand as documented successes and proofs of concept, the technology still faces a number of clear barriers to widespread healthcare adoption, including issues of funding and cost, inelegant hardware and software, general technology aversion, and pushback from unconvinced practitioners.

“It’s the same sort of hurdles that we find with a lot of technology solutions in healthcare that have not yet become fully baked into practice,” he said. “I think that we still have a bit of a ways to go to make this not necessarily consumer or patient-friendly, but just less disorienting.”

These roadblocks are generally decreasing as the quality of virtual reality improves and more data is collected, Krohn said. What’s more exciting for him and David Metcalf, director of the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab at the University of Central Florida, are the ways in which other tools are being deployed alongside virtual and augmented reality to provide a complete simulation.

“If you start to combine this with your augmented reality overlay experience, you have the best of a simulated ‘real’ world that you can put in place, and the best of an augmented virtual world, or an augmented overlay, and you can put those two things together to make an experience,” Metcalf said. “That’s oftentimes called ‘mixed reality,’ and that’s what we’re starting to experience.”

Examples of mixed reality cited by Metcalf included 3D-printed with live cell props that the wearer touches while viewing virtual body parts, as well as other extrasensory stand-ins such as smell. Outside of augmenting the simulation, though, Metcalf said that his team has found success deploying the more advanced, and potentially overwhelming, VR technologies alongside simpler offerings with similar goals, such as playing cards with educational messages or mobile apps.

“Some things that can be really simple, up to more complex, and have a gradient scale,” he said. “You’re not trying to just deliver one thing to one audience only — you have choices for your audience.”

The presenters highlight a handful of other promising trends and implementations for virtual and augmented reality, among the more interesting of which included the collection of motor data or other metrics for monitoring rehabilitation progress, or algorithm-driven diagnosis of dementia. Many of these more niche implementations are primarily being driven by entrepreneurs, Krohn said, but are still in their early stages. Many of these show potential for healthcare, so long as those wider roadblocks can be addressed. 

“If we can bridge the gap between a device that is cheap, that’s portable, that’s scalable, that has beautiful latency and beautiful software and hardware configuration, that can prove its effectiveness — I think that there’s a real golden opportunity here,” Krohn said.


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