Beyond fun and games: Virtual reality may change the way doctors work

April 19, 2016

Read time 5 min

Virtual reality took some rather unimpressive baby steps in the 90s. Who remembers Sega VR or Nintendo Virtual Boy? Virtually no one. The technology wasn’t ready, and neither was the world.

Now, after 20 years of digitalization, VR is growing momentum by not only meeting expectations, but exceeding them. First-timers tend to be very impressed, instantly.

What we are witnessing in 2016, however, is just the beginning – and that’s the really cool part. VR is bound to have unprecedented impacts on society, and more industries than we can imagine.

Practicing medicine is one of them.

“Three dimensional curving of a notably worn out spine and its anatomical characteristics, for example, could be easier to determine using virtual reality glasses instead of a computer screen. It can reduce the amount of surprises during operations, when time is of the essence”, orthopedist and traumatologist Eppu Sainio speculated, after examining the leg of one of our consultants in virtual space at our Helsinki office.

Wait, what? How did that happen? Let’s rewind.

The time is now! Virtual is finally a reality

VR’s novelty value is at its peak. That’s why it makes sense that many of the first encounters are with branded content, like the New York Times’ platform launched in late 2015. As production costs decrease, we can expect marketers to bombard us with more and more VR experiences and 360 videos. Until we’re numb.

More importantly, after a long wait full of hype, virtual reality hardware is officially available. Oculus Rift started shipping, Samsung showcased Gear VR in Barcelona (we all saw what that looked like), and the first HTC Vive consumer models became available in early April.

Also, virtual reality startups are flourishing, impressing us with the things they create as much as the investments they secure. One of Reaktor Ventures’ portfolio companies, VR studio Sólfar from Iceland (who just raised over $2 million), took users to the top of virtual Mount Everest, with remarkably eye-opening results. Just ask Wired.

And naturally, video game companies are on it, at the very forefront of VR innovation. The Reaktor folks at our Tokyo office are pretty stoked about the world’s first VR arcade.

With the right application, virtual reality could change any industry

Construction, education, interior design, risk assessment, space station maintenance training, rehabilitation, sports, remote working… There’s no shortage of speculation over possible VR use cases.

Fascinated by it all, we wanted to involve some doctors in thinking about the benefits of VR in their daily work, and take it a step further at the same time. So, we performed a low threshold experiment, resulting in the virtualization of some of our employees’ limbs, including consultant Mikko Olkkonen’s leg.

“Earlier this year, a colleague made a 3D print out of an x-ray of his arm and showed it to his physician, who really liked what he had done. We realized anatomically correct virtual modeling is already possible, and gave it a try”, Olkkonen explains.

He had his leg scanned at a private doctor’s office to make it part of our team’s application, which allows the user to examine body parts layer by layer, from every imaginable angle and distance, with 100% anatomical correctness.

For doctors, virtual reality can offer accuracy and time efficiency

So, we invited some physicians over. The verdict was unanimous and the excitement real: they all saw great potential in VR to make their daily work easier.

“Virtual reality could be a valuable addition in image rendering for complex anatomical and pathological observations. Computer assisted tomography images can easily be transformed into VR models”, radiologist Antti Pitkänen said.

Orthopedist and traumatologist Eppu Sainio added: “Examining dimensions of broken components in fractured joints would be easier with VR, and probably more accurate.”

When compared to physical models, saving time is an obvious benefit of virtuality.

“A VR model can be viewed almost immediately, unlike a physical 3D print, which can take hours or days to be delivered. VR can reduce the need for them, and enhance cost and time efficiency”, dentist Janne Friman summarized.

The gaming industry’s achievements play a crucial role

Thanks to the sophistication of the tools already available, our experiment only took a few hours.

“We could have easily spent a small eternity on the details, but that wasn’t the point. The purpose was to take first steps towards something tangible, so that we have more than just theory to talk about”, Reaktor’s Virtual Architect Mikko Koponen says.

He is excited about gaming industry VR technologies becoming applicable in all kinds of fields.

“The great thing about the gaming industry’s achievements is that the technologies are useful elsewhere, too. And, skills that until now have only been useful for creating games will soon be needed within a number of industries. It might take a while, but user interfaces for virtual spaces will be in very high demand”, he explains.

Simply put, the basic infrastructure for all kinds of use cases is being built as a gaming industry side product.

What virtual reality ends up becoming could easily surprise us all

VR is not about to arrive at your doctor’s office quite yet. Cost efficiency, software demands, and funding are among issues that need to be resolved.

“It’s important to define the needs that VR can offer solutions to, not just create technology for its own sake,” Reaktor’s service design specialist Marjo Mansén states. “But what’s really interesting is that the possibilities are limitless. No user interface conventions exist yet, so the development can take surprising turns.”

“Our experiment was about showcasing what the technology can already do, and how far it has come. And, we wanted to inspire everyone to think about the future. The real applications of VR can become something completely different from what we are currently predicting”, Mansén elaborates.

Yes, the future of virtual reality is anyone’s guess. The only thing that seems most certain is that we can expect to be surprised. And, the sooner we start guessing the better.

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