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5 ideas for virtual reality in medicine

5 ideas for virtual reality in medicine

Just as with Mobile and Wearables, we are at the cusp of yet another technology becoming a big part of our daily lives. Revolutionary technology cooks for a long time in research labs, starting in spurts before finally taking the leap mainstream. After its long journey from the days of the Sensorama in the 1950s, Virtual Reality (VR) is ready to get real.

Google recently led a $542M investment in Magic Leap, a VR company. Microsoft wowed everyone with its HoloLens. Facebook purchased Oculus last year. Samsung partnered with Oculus and launched Gear VR. Sony announced Morpheus for our PS4s in 2016. Even HTC with Vive talked about letting you "get up, walk around and explore your virtual space". And then there are 374 Chinese manufacturers already selling VR devices on Alibaba. Yes, VR could potentially become an industry in its own right.

What's Virtual Reality Anyways?

We are already living a virtual life through Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Whatsapp, Amazon, LinkedIn and so on. These virtual worlds have permanently altered our real worlds. The new technology would simply make our virtual experiences so immersive that it would become difficult to distinguish between what's real and what's not (read this layman's guide to VR).

Secretive startup Magic Leap is building a device (below, an image from their patent application) that would beam images directly onto our retinas so that we can see virtual elephants jumping on our palms (see video above).

Microsoft's HoloLens is a wearable computer that makes holographic projections around our physical space and lets us manipulate them using our hands - moving them around, drawing, constructing. Other devices are variations of these visions - making our perceptions of the virtual more real in a very 3D way.

We would truly enter the realm of science fiction when VR gets other sensory capabilities such as that of touch (through haptic technology, think Wearables 2.0) or even smell (such as the olfactory phone where you can text a coffee sniff to a friend). Here's an intriguing holy grail for VR:

After one passes on, his great-great-great-grandchildren can enter a “holodeck,” sit on the long-deceased ancestor’s lap, tell him about their day, experience his avatar tell a story, give a hug, and provide advice. A quite reasonable facsimile of a person’s dynamic tendencies can be preserved indefinitely in virtual reality.

Blascovich, Jim; Bailenson, Jeremy (2011-04-05). Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution (p. 145). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

5 Startup Ideas For VR Medicine

Mobile app stores have long established the way forward for the spread of new technologies - create developer platforms to build apps that encourage rapid adoption. VR platforms would do the same to attract new users from a variety of industries. Unlike in earlier years, the healthcare industry is on a hot new pursuit to embrace new technology. Here are 5 startup ideas that would take advantage of this brewing VR revolution.

1) Democratizing surgical systems. A few years ago, I played with the da Vinci robotic surgical system at Intuitive Surgical's offices. Looking through a viewfinder that expanded vision, I used my fingers to control multiple robotic arms. With my enhanced psychomotor skills and other superpowers, I felt a little like Goddess Kali with multiple hands. The big hurdle for the spread of this technology has been cost.

New VR systems combined with dropping costs of sensors and robotics would democratize the manufacture of similar surgical systems. It would be possible to dramatically enhance the capabilities of surgical instruments through increased fidelity and finer control systems making surgery minimally invasive. Add deep learning algorithms and haptic feedback to the mix and we could have surgical instruments that aid surgeons while performing procedures.

2) Enhancing physician training. Dr. Vipulroy Rathod from Endoscopy Asia has trained over 400 gastroenterologists globally. He recently started an online portal called Endoscopy Guru that provides thousands of physician trainees access to possibly one of the largest archives of endoscopy videos. In the future, trainees would wear VR gear and find themselves standing next to Dr. Rathod in the operating room. Using haptic medical gloves (see image again from Magic Leap's patent application), they might even feel the scope entering a patient's gut. These training programs would be archived for perpetuity so that future generations of doctors can understand how endoscopy and several other procedures evolved over time.

VR simulation has long been used in aviation and military training - it would firmly find its place in medicine once the bottlenecks of cost and complexity are removed.

3) Building psychosomatic applications. An increasing body of research points to psychosomatic reasons (influence of mind over body) for several ailments. Through personal experience, we know that certain memories and thoughts have physical manifestations. Thoughts of fear make our hearts beat faster, guilt exhibits itself in the stomach region, sexual thoughts in the erogenous zones, sadness around the throat and so on.

Virtual Reality is directly suited for manipulating physical experiences. There would be several applications that provide the desired immersive, mental stimulus to result in a tangible physical outcome. For example, when a patient in physical therapy sees herself running normally, she would recover faster. Virtually Better is a great illustration of the potential of immersive clinical care. They developed Virtual Iraq, a virtual reality simulation environment that helps soldiers deal with post traumatic stress disorder (see video to learn how it actually feels).

4) Increasing patient compliance. One of the biggest problems in medical care is patient compliance. We routinely fail to stick to diets, take medicines in time and get ourselves screened regularly. In the future, we would use visually-enriched VR applications to keep ourselves in check, just as we use wearables today.

During a session at Singularity University, Larry Smarr (often called The Patient of the Future) passed around a 3D printed model of his colon. I was amused holding the model, turning it around to see what a problematic colon actually looked like. The fact is visualizing symptoms increases patient compliance - when we see our hearts clogged, we would listen to our doctors better. With VR gear, we would sit with our doctors, spin around our organs and see the link between compliance and health. And with a desktop 3D printer, our doctor could even print them for us to take home and admire!

5) Making remote healthcare delivery happen. Medical treatment typically goes through a series of steps from identifying presenting symptoms, capturing subjective and objective medical data, diagnosing and chalking out a plan. With the aid of data and visualization tools, it's possible to deliver care remotely today. Companies such as American WellDoctor on Demand and Teladoc have demonstrated that there is demand for virtual care and a way to deliver it effectively. Virtual Reality could dramatically make this experience more real.

Through the use of medical haptic gloves (think of gloves with lots of sensors), a patient can be touched remotely helping a doctor get sensory feedback during a physical exam. When a patient and doctor see each other sitting or standing in front of them, the experience is very close to a normal office visit. Aided with EHR data and remote lab tests enabled through microfluidics devices, it may even be possible to deliver healthcare remotely most of the time and to places where healthcare is not accessible.

What to do next?

Buy a Google Cardboard kit to experience VR for under $15 or even better, fold your own with everyday items like cardboard, lenses, magnets, velcro and a rubber band. Then experience Paul McCartney perform "Live and Let Die" in 360 degrees, with stereo 3D in what's called a cinematic VR. Then startup.

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