Looking beyond Pokemon Go: Augmented reality and virtual reality open vistas in medicine

Surgeons who experience VR simulations had improved psycho-motor skills and their performance in the operating room improved significantly

By Nirmalya Mohapatra
Last Updated: Monday 20 January 2020
Woman with virtual reality headset

A few years ago Pokemon Go, an augmented reality (AR) game developed by Niantic Inc took the gaming universe by storm. Gamers — young and the not so young (including this writer) — were obsessively hooked on to their smart-phone screens.

They moved around the streets, swiping vigorously trying to catch their favourite pokemon. These were to be found in specific locations in the real world, visible only through the augmented environment of their smart-phone screen.

For the uninitiated, AR is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information.

AR can be defined as a system that fulfils three basic features:

  • A combination of real and virtual worlds,
  • Real-time interaction
  • Accurate three-dimensional registration of virtual and real objects

Anyone who has played Pokemon Go can easily relate to this piece of information. 

Similarly, virtual reality (VR) is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment. It can be interacted with in a seemingly real (virtual) or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

VR and AR technology was developed long ago, primarily for entertainment purposes such as 3D movies and games. But this technology has branched out and has found applications in medicine, aviation, automobile industry and the military.

The applications of VR and AR in surgical training, physical therapy and rehabilitation has huge scope and offers immense benefits. Through VR, students of medicine have the ability to practice complex surgeries without stepping into the operating room.

Studies say surgeons who experience VR simulations had improved psycho-motor skills and their performance in the operating room improved significantly. Also, AR can produce a 3D representation of a patient's anatomy that allows surgeons to map out the surgery ahead of time while acting as an adjunct to radiographical imaging.

In physical rehabilitation, a variety of applications have been developed, which are VR- and AR-enabled, mainly for balance and gait training in Parkinson’s Disease.

Also, consider patients suffering stroke, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury (TBI), where the success of physical therapy hugely depends on patient participation. VR applications provide a fun-filled, immersive and interactive way of administering physical therapy. This register better outcomes than therapist administered physical therapy.

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is a form of exposure therapy for treating anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. Studies have indicated that combining VRET with behavioural therapy, patients experience a reduction of symptoms. 

Immersive VR may distract people, thus finding application in the field of acute pain management and reducing their experience of pain. 

VR has been adopted by some healthtech start-ups for fitness by using gamification concepts to encourage exercise.

The widespread adoption of VR and AR , especially in developing countries has been slow in health care, notwithstanding proven benefits . The huge price tag associated with them is prohibitive at times.

So, let us be hopeful that in future, with the development of indigenous technology (some companies in India have started working on it already and I am closely following a Bengaluru based AR start-up, and also rooting for their success) prices may reduce. This will lead to wide-spread adoption.

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