Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) technologies have been gaining significant interest in healthcare in recent years, primarily owing to the increasing availability of consumer-grade VR/AR tools and devices. Most existing healthcare-focused VR solutions are designed to provide immersive user experiences situated within fully synthetic virtual worlds, which are frequently used for patient and provider education, physician training, patient rehabilitation, and behavioral therapy. The AR solutions, on the other hand, provide a mixed user experience where virtual and real elements seamlessly co-exist to empower the user and bring the next level of sophistication for education, training, and performance support for patients and providers.
Originally developed for military applications in the late 60s, the VR/AR technologies are becoming more oriented towards the mainstream consumer, and the field of VR/AR has enjoyed a significant development boom of consumer-grade technology products within the last seven years alone. This has helped in their introduction to different sectors, including healthcare. There are several successful implementations of VR and AR solutions in healthcare available today, including human anatomy education, surgical training, pain management, interprofessional teamwork, telemedicine, and others.
The growing VR/AR market offers new product options for the healthcare sector, and the ever-increasing “wow” factor of the latest VR/AR devices and gadgets promises to promote user engagement and connect the world around us. The VR/AR technologies continue to advance as a form of consumer media that fuels user enthusiasm for more powerful tools to support learning and performance in healthcare. While there are still several challenges that inhibit the widespread adoption of VR/AR in healthcare, such as cost, technical and human factors issues, limited content availability, and others, it is encouraging to see a new wave of innovation within the last couple of years. This has been particularly noticeable in the AR field where clunky head-mounted display (HMD) designs are now being replaced by sleek yet powerful devices that look more like regular eyeglasses than sci-fi movie gear. Essential steps are also being taken towards improving cross-platform interoperability for VR/AR and other technologies.
"The VR/AR field currently appears to be more focused on the technology advancement, which is enough to engage the technology enthusiasts, visionaries, and other early adopters but not sufficient to drive these innovations into the mainstream usein healthcare"
At the same time, it is important to note that the majority of new VR/AR devices are currently being introduced within the context of specific applications limited to particular use cases, e.g., education, gaming, equipment operations, supply chain management, and others. This is certainly an understandable move on the part of the technology developers who wish to quickly transition their innovations into specific markets. However, considering the nature of new technology adoption where “life begins at a billion examples” and where “content is king,” we are yet to discover the ideal VR/AR platforms for healthcare that would be flexible, versatile, reliable, and affordable.
As a researcher, I would like to add that the research on VR/AR in healthcare remains limited and fragmented, and a lot more anecdotal versus research-validated evidence is available. The VR/AR field currently appears to be more focused on technology advancement, which is enough to engage the technology enthusiasts, visionaries, and other early adopters in healthcare. However, before these technologies can completely cross the so-called “technology adoption chasm” and firmly grab hold of the mainstream market, particularly in healthcare, the technology and content producers must collaborate with healthcare professionals and digital health scientists in order to develop VR/AR solutions capable of transforming modern healthcare.