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Keeping it real

Virtual and augmented realities are helping to shape the future possibilities for healthcare

Matt BrierleyGlynn GodwinPanning for ‘digital gold’

At Ashfield Healthcare Communications, we are constantly looking at ways to leverage new technologies to provide better solutions for physicians and their patients. In a world of technology that is changing at an ever-accelerating pace, constant horizon scanning is vital. When we assess something ‘new’, one of the key questions we ask is, is it just a ‘fad’ or ‘gimmick’? We are currently assessing a set of key technologies that look set to come of age and be of major relevance to the healthcare industry, namely virtual and augmented realities (VR/AR). In this article, we want to briefly explore how VR/AR has evolved and imagine the future possibilities for healthcare.

Back in the day…

The first wave of VR emerged in the 1980s from a pioneering company called VPL Research Inc. By immersing the user in a virtual 3D world, it helped give birth to new ideas and advanced the concept of remote surgery. Although highly innovative, the products failed to become mainstream due to high costs, low-resolution graphics and overall bulkiness. In short, the supporting technology was not yet sophisticated enough to make fully immersive experiences widely available.

The resurgence of VR/AR

Fast-forward to today and technology is catching up. Driven by relatively low costs and computing muscle only dreamt of when VPL Research started out (smart phones, simple headsets [Google Cardboard] and more sophisticated kit [HTC Vive or Oculus Rift]). The challenge now is, how can we generate truly meaningful experiences via VR/AR and not introduce the technology just for the sake of it?

Alternate perspectives

At Ashfield Healthcare Communications we are currently exploring ways to utilise VR/AR in healthcare education to enable the user to explore different patient perspectives.

Comparing disease progression: The concept here is to allow the user to observe the outcomes of a patient case study by switching between potential treatment approaches and visualising the potential different outcomes. The aim is to utilise aggregated data and personalise this into a case study to ‘humanise’ the consequences of different paths of action.

Walk a mile in their shoes: We have already designed VR/AR experiences that mimic the patient experience. The power of putting you in the shoes of the patient, understanding real-life experiences, their feelings and how daily life is affected, cannot be underestimated. Patient insight, augmented with additional scientific information gives the user a richer experience that hopefully leads to greater understanding, empathy and potentially improved outcomes.

What’s next for VR/AR?

At the vanguard of visual technology research is mixed reality (MR): a fully integrated combination of augmented and virtual reality that adds content to your field of vision that looks and sounds like it is truly embedded in your surroundings. A seductively secretive company called Magic Leap is working on an MR technology (eg Dynamic Digitised Lightfield Signal) that could change how we interact with information. Magic Leap has been hailed as ‘bringing a new era of computing’ and is reportedly working on a technology that is so revolutionary it has to be seen to be believed. Very few have been lucky enough to see it, but it has attracted significant investment (currently worth $4.5bn) although it is yet to release a single product!

From what (we think) we know, the user will be able to see advanced imagery augmented with more precision than any other technology currently available. The promise of MR allows us to imagine the possibilities for healthcare, including:

Medical teaching

This is already happening: widely available augmented surgery simulations with scientific information included in their field of vision or allowing students to interact with, for example, complex anatomical features or molecular and cellular interactions.

Patient communication

Projection of a patient or physician image could allow greater access and communication while retaining the advantages of face-to-face appointments. In addition, physicians could explain detailed aspects of disease or treatment using interactive data and images.

Live events

The possibilities of how delegates can interact with content, experts and each other at congresses are almost endless. Future international meetings might involve navigating a virtual space, negating the need to travel.


Could the pharmaceutical industry look to seek out new advances in patient care more quickly? The early signs are that this is beginning to happen, as companies look to become leaders in this field by seeking out more partnerships with digital technologies. One thing is for sure, as far as VR/AR is concerned, if we can focus on creating truly meaningful applications we will improve the overall experience for patients.

Glynn Godwin is VP interactive and design at Ashfield Digital and Creative, part of Ashfield Healthcare Communications. Matt Brierley is VP medical and scientific services at Ashfield Healthcare Communications.

in association with


13th July 2017

From: Healthcare



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