When mobile phones came onto the mass market it would have been difficult to see how they were to develop into the ubiquitous multimedia devices they are now. Their power, development and rapid take-up has easily exceeded early predictions. Now, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies are beginning a similar journey.

The VR technology platforms promise great things but the real disruptive and escalating development trend will be how the software or content is designed to run on it. The other driver will be how increasing demand for VR creates lower production costs and reduces the price of headsets, sensory accessories and systems to run the software.

There is an abundance of predictions from futurists as to the potential uses of the technology and its market value. Our interest lies in translating some of the core features of VR and AR which, over the next ten years, could impact on a whole range of healthcare offers and capabilities for patients and healthcare professionals.

As always in a highly regulated field like healthcare, it will first be vital to prove efficacy and proven, positive outcomes acceptable to the medical profession before there is mass take–up or serious financial investment.

There are many existing ways that VR is already used in medicine, such as 3D systems for robotic operations and surgery simulators for training. Beyond the theatre, VR is a very cost-effective and safe way to give clinical training to a whole range of healthcare professionals. Practitioners can receive training on procedures, techniques, equipment and patient interactions in a far more immersive and realistic environment than using the traditional videos and paperwork.

Strategically the implications for using VR systems and AR systems are far-reaching. The essence of VR is that it places the participant into worlds where they can interact with technical, emotional and perceptual scenarios. We are on the cusp of developing the software and non-linear editing and storytelling techniques that VR requires. More importantly there needs to be a lot more research on how we as humans will interact with VR and perhaps some of the unexpected impact it has on qualities like empathy, trust and seeing the world, almost literally, through the eyes of others.

A new reality for healthcare

Healthcare systems and the medical science community need to start examining and evaluating the opportunities and the pitfalls of VR so that a new disruptive technology does not lead to an unregulated, misunderstood and potentially damaging new medical tool.

Looking at possible uses in healthcare, VR might have a significant role to play in mental health treatment of conditions like autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. It can provide safe learning ‘mental spaces’ that feel and appear real. The use of VR in psychiatry is a new medical discipline that needs to be evaluated.  VR-based therapy could be delivered to a much wider group of patients, connecting remotely with a therapist or physician, effectively giving more ‘bang for your buck’.

One of the biggest challenges in the healthcare world is working out how big data can be used to extract the latent value that it represents. AR is another part of VR technology that has enormous potential for the healthcare industry. It can provide physicians with a vivid, user-friendly and well integrated overlay of data on the real world they are working in, right in their field of vision. Data is relevant for that diagnosis with that individual patient in that individual healthcare setting. The potential is only just being evaluated as the technology is still very young. Once the AR interface, such as special glasses or lenses and enough computing power appears, it could rapidly spread in popularity, especially among the younger generation of doctors to whom the prospect of digital interaction is normal. If well designed, the ability to combine real world experience overlaid with access to huge databases could speed up treatment, diagnosis and general patient management and make it more accurate.

In a way it is a shame that the technology emerged from the world of gaming, which has inevitably downgraded its status and allure among some medical science constituencies. It is up to healthcare professionals to step up, engage in the debate and support companies that are developing VR and AR technology, software and content.

The technology needs to be assessed for its return on investment, its medical development and how it will meet compliance needs. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the technology has the potential to create new levels of analysis and awareness. In the medical science world, perhaps it should be treated with the same seriousness and attention that any new, ground-breaking treatment or drug would get.

To find out more about our thoughts on how VR and AR is potentially going to impact the live events and communications industry, including exhibitions and venue finding, read our SPARK THINKING blog.

A new reality for healthcare