Health Applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality

It’s impossible for anyone who is even semi-interested in what’s happening in the world of software and hardware to miss the latest advances in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (AR and VR). On the AR front, Google Glass is making a stealth comeback, Microsoft is going all in with Hololens, and there are products coming up from other companies including Sony. On the VR front, Oculus Rift will release its widely anticipated (and generously funded by Facebook) solution in early 2016, to join a collection of products from Sony, HTC, Google and other companies.

(Note: For a quick primer on AR and VR, you may want to check out this article: What is the difference between augmented and virtual reality?)

AR and VR are expected to finally make a huge impact on many industries, and healthcare is going to be one of the major beneficiaries. Many new AR/VR products for healthcare have appeared in the last year or so, and many more will appear in the near future. Achieving a good product-market fit will of-course be a key responsibility for AR/VR healthcare product managers.

“Product-market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market,” according to Marc Andreessen, to whom the term is often attributed. Since it starts with markets, let’s look at some markets for virtual reality applications in healthcare (we will discuss augmented reality applications in a future article). But first let’s look at…

Virtual Reality Ecosystem

Greenlight VR, a market research firm specialising in Virtual Reality has published a fascinating map of the VR ecosystem that “represents more than 150 different companies which provide head mounted display and related hardware, production equipment and software, VR apps, research, and technical and other services, organized into 22 categories across 11 major sectors… It is a sample, albeit a large one, of the many different kinds of virtual reality companies operating today. There are many more companies — indeed, entire categories — that were not included, merely due to the constraints of time and space. The pace of change in this field is breathtaking.”

“Fast Company” has published an interesting article suggesting that virtual reality and augmented reality are expected to generate about $150 billion in revenue by the year 2020. Here is an image from the article providing another look at the AR / VR ecosystem:



VR Solutions for Medical Education and Training

There are many companies working in this space. One to watch is Next Galaxy Corp. They have developed virtual reality medical instructional software for procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), nasal gastric tube insertion, Foley catheter insertion, intubation, starting an IV, wound care, and the Heimlich maneuver. According to Miami Children’s Health System, one of their customers, the retention level a year after a VR training session can be as much as 80%, compared to 20% retention after a week with traditional training.

And the potential for cost-savings in this area is massive. According to Fortune, the 65,000 elderly care facilities in America currently spend on average $3,000 per employee to learn tracheal insertion. But with a VR solution from Next Galaxy, it costs just $40 per employee and will likely go down to $5 when Android and iOS applications are released.

Another very interesting application area is surgery training and, by extension, robotic surgery. The benefits of surgery training that does not involve real patients are obvious. And robotic surgery, while not a training procedure, takes advantage of virtual reality enabling the surgeon to control the movements of a robotic arm, in particular, small, delicate movements which would be difficult to perform by a human surgeon.

VR Solutions for Treating Medical Conditions

A review published by TechRepublic has examples of use of VR in helping people with a wide range of conditions:

  • phobias
  • post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • pain from burns
  • phantom limb pain
  • brain damage
  • autism
  • various conditions requiring surgery (see above too)

VR Solutions for General Health and Wellbeing

Opportunities in this area are numerous, for example:

  • relaxation and stress relief, (for example an application for meditative breathing
  • improving quality of life for disabled persons, for example, allowing paralyzed people to use their eyes to play the piano
  • improving quality of life for senior citizens who are mostly homebound, for example allowing them to have bike rides or walks in VR
  • preventative medicine, for example VR simulations that show people the long-term effects of their behaviours like drinking soft drinks

VR Solutions for Personal Fitness and Exercise

Technically, fitness and exercise are a segment of the general health and wellbeing market, but it’s such a large segment that it is actually a real market in its own right. Some interesting applications in this area include:

  • Runtastic helps you perform a workout
  • virtual cycling and bicycle hardware companies like Widerun, Activetainment and VirZoom allow you to enjoy the “outdoors” from the comfort of your home or a gym
  • Icaros is a particularly fun-looking but also very challenging fitness gaming device that can simulate flying while you exercise

In summary, the markets for VR solutions for healthcare are very dynamic and will be undergoing major changes in the next several years. This will of course present the usual roadmap development and other product management challenges for companies serving these markets.

In a future article we will review the use of augmented reality in healthcare and medicine.