Augmented Reality (AR) is technology that overlays information and virtual objects on real-world scenes in real-time. Virtual Reality (VR) is a three-dimensional computer-generated environment that a person can explore and interact with in varying levels of immersion. While tech that blurs the line between simulation and reality can be traced back to 1965, when Ivan Sutherland developed the first head-mounted display system, it’s evolved into a tool that can be applied to improving people’s health in innovative and unexpected ways. The impacts of AR and VR on healthcare have been immense, including making the industry more technologically advanced, motivational for patients, and accessible to all.
In the following article, I will talk about these recent developments in the AR and VR world that have improved the effectiveness of healthcare. Specifically, innovative startups have made advancements in surgery and patient care that are pushing this field into the future.
AR & VR in Surgery
Startups with AR and VR products have developed new opportunities in healthcare to make processes easier, faster, and safer for all groups involved in medical surgery. Augmedics, for example, developed the first AR navigation system for surgery: the xvision spine system (XVS), a headset consisting of glasses and a camera. The XVS visualizes data like the patient’s spinal anatomy and the position of surgical tools as a 3D image right on the surgeon’s glasses. Therefore, surgeons can continuously operate while looking directly at the patient instead of shifting their eyes towards screens for information.
The startup Surgical Theater also created a new system to navigate the human body, but in this case with VR. Their “Medical VR Visualization” platform accesses patients’ data to display a reconstruction of their affected area that is specific to them. This analysis helps surgeons plan their approach before operating and educates patients about their conditions in a comfortable and immersive way. Another Surgical Theater product, the “VR Studio,” presents reconstructions to medical students. Therefore, they can practice cases without involving real patients while learning in a more dynamic, controlled, and interactive environment.
RealView Imaging also provides physicians with medical imaging without having to look at a screen, and in their case headsets aren’t necessary! Its “Digital Light Shaping” tech, which is the world’s first 3D holographic display and interface system, creates hyper-realistic models of patients’ anatomy that clinicians can analyze and even touch. ImmersiveTouch is another startup that converts regularly sourced patient data, such as from an MR or CT scan, into an interactive visualization. Their different AR and VR platforms assist clinicians during surgeries, when planning them, or while training. The hardware involved, such as hand-held robotics that mimic real surgical tools, give physicians a real sense of touch during simulations. Using Oculus Rift controllers, surgeons with ImmersiveTouch’s “ImmersiveView” tech can customize their 3D patient models in creative ways like making the blood vessels transparent or zooming in on specific sections.
Thanks to tech platforms like Proximie, clinicians can work in an operating room from anywhere in the world, including multiple people collaborating remotely. With so much variation in care depending on the location, it’s helpful that medical personnel can more efficiently share knowledge and resources with those who need it. For example, last year a leading robotics surgeon from the US virtually operated on a patient in London from 4,700 miles away. An additional benefit of this tech is that every time it’s used, the operation is digitally recorded and analyzed so Proximie can learn from past data. It comes in portable and console versions for maximum efficiency and accessibility, plus it’s compatible with existing phone and desktop hardware.
AR & VR in Patient Care
Startups have not just created AR and VR tech that’s helpful for doctors, but for patients as well. Reducept’s goal is to eliminate chronic pain through personalized daily training on their app, website, and online community. Clients wear a headset that guides them through the nervous system and contains exercises for training the brain to control pain. Reducept’s Science Officer and Founder Louis Zantema explains the value of VR to this approach combining psychology, pain science, and digital gaming:
“If we know what image or idea people have of their own complaint, they can be ‘exposed’ to it in a VR innovation. In this way, someone can get a grip on a problem that is not as literal as a clear fear of something in the outside world.”
Karuna Labs also deploys VR as a tool against chronic pain with its 12-week home digital therapeutics programs. In the various simulations, patients perform exercises in the virtual world that increase their range of motion, like slinging a bow and arrow. This solution involves the science of neuroplasticity, as physical and psychological exercises weaken the brain’s pain muscles while reactivating healthy neural pathways. In cases like these, VR is used to deliver therapies for the mind, as opposed to the body. Psious creates 360° simulations adapted to mental health patients’ specific conditions as a form of exposure therapy. It’s the first company with an “all-in-one” product of this kind to therapists, as they deliver all the necessary hardware, software, and training. Thanks to VR, patients with conditions like claustrophobia, addiction, and more can be immersed in environments that would otherwise trigger their problems, but are now a safe space to practice withstanding them.
Limbix has also developed digital therapeutics, but as a prescribed treatment for the specific purpose of mental health issues in adolescents. They’re currently running a clinical trial to study whether their app or traditional educational materials is more effective in treating teenage depression during the pandemic. For more enriching and immersive therapy sessions, the Limbix VR Kit comes with a headset, tablet, and docking station to test disorders in a visceral but safe virtual environment.
When used alongside AI-powered software platforms, VR and AR allow doctors and patients to monitor the latter group’s status like never before. Startups like Snap40 have made it so people don’t even need to leave their homes to monitor their health on a professional level. They’ve developed a device worn on the upper arm, which has an algorithm that identifies changes in the user’s heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate, and other levels. Therefore, medical experts can intervene proactively and not after health has deteriorated. Meanwhile, the software developers at skygate produce innovations across industries, but have also made a specific effort towards AI solutions in health. Their skychemo app monitors patients like Snap40’s does, but for the specific application of during home chemotherapy. Thanks to these breakthroughs in telemedicine, medical information can be shared from a distance, which is of course important in our increasingly remote world.
Using AR and VR, startups have created tools to display data visually on top of regular screens and simulate dangerous scenarios in a safe way. Doctors and patients alike can use these inventions to improve their understanding of medical conditions and of what measures to take to combat them. The possibilities of this tech are already enormous and its potential continues to grow, as they enable surgeries and patient care to continue even when medical facilities worldwide shut down.