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Meet VirtaMed: “The technology of today will not support the doctor of tomorrow”

April 06, 2017

A theater producer, a business consultant, a marketer, and a VR enthusiast: our Strategic Project Manager Phil Norris has been many things in life. Now he is passionate about improving patient outcomes, and he wants to use the latest virtual reality technology together with you to achieve that.

Phil studied economics at the University of Cambridge, where he picked a specialization that would set a theme for his career path: the role of the entrepreneur as both an innovator and an investor. He balanced his hard work with a lot of play at the university’s student theater, and it was only natural that Phil’s first job after graduation was to manage the university theater, making him the youngest head of a department at Cambridge.

Theater management turned into theater consulting, and then to general business consultancy. As he moved to Switzerland, Phil’s consulting focused on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, where theater took on a different interpretation. After a marketing stint in a cleantech project, Phil started working with VirtaMed in summer 2015.

The common thread throughout Phil’s career is the realization of new opportunities: whether you are discovering a new form of theater, a new biosimilar, or a new business case, the challenge is fundamentally the same. Being a part of all these industries, to be a part of these new discoveries, and to leave a commercial legacy has been very rewarding, Phil describes.

“How to sell a product that has not been developed yet to a customer that we don’t know yet?”

Phil works across VirtaMed’s teams to help create, implement and embed new tools and processes. VirtaMed is a company in constant growth: new products are developed and updated frequently; our customers range from medical device startups to medtech giants, from prestigious training institutes to small specialized clinics. This challenges all internal processes: how do you make sure that a product that has not even been designed yet gets produced, tested and then delivered to the right address at the right time to a customer that isn’t even known yet? A million pieces need to fit together to create a result that you, the customer, will hopefully never even notice. VirtaMed connects these pieces using a combination of robust processes and a new Enterprise Resource Planning system, something that Phil’s hand has guided during his time here.

Yet, when asked for his proudest moment, Phil picks out the sound design for VirtaMed’s ArthroS™ Knee Inside View at the International Meeting on Simulation in Healthcare (IMSH) in Orlando in January 2017. VirtaMed immersed congress participants inside the human knee joint, challenging them to orientate and navigate using an HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Users of our ArthroS™ Knee simulator recognized 3D graphics from their arthroscopic view, but the experience had needed completely redesigning for full 360-degree immersion, including a new soundscape: transposing familiar operating room sounds, and imagining internal noises such as the articulation of the knee joint and the movement of fluid.

During his years in theater sound design, Phil learned that the greatest compliment an audience can give is a puzzled look when quizzed on the individual components of an immersive experience. “What sound design?” was the common reply from people who immersed themselves in the ArthroS™ Knee Inside View: when the illusion of walking inside an actual giant human body is strong enough, you forget that every piece of that experience has been carefully designed by a skilled team.

“If you can imagine it, you can usually make it”

Phil has kept a Google Cardboard on his desk for a while now and fondly remembers its childhood precursor, the View-Master, that transported the wearer into photographs of far far away. As immersive virtual and augmented reality products quickly develop, Phil recognizes that it takes a lot of luck to create a successful product. That said, he asserts that imagining it is the most important part: if you can imagine a product, you can usually make it. In the case of virtual reality in medical education, skilled engineers have spent hundreds of thousands of hours developing platforms that bring us closer to creating new tools. “All it takes is to match training objectives with the technology.”

Imagination is also where many fall short: opportunities of an immersive environment are often too abstract to be made relevant to training, Phil challenges. In contrast, standing inside the (virtual) knee is a unique opportunity to observe the method of action of surgical tools, and the experience offers an illuminating perspective compared to traditional arthroscopy. Gaining greater spatial context for the environment in which doctors train to operate is just one opportunity that Phil believes will help improve patient outcomes in the future.

Researching virtual reality applications is just another example of Phil’s career in new discoveries, and he considers it a natural continuation of his work to better serve our customers. When a company’s philosophy focuses on patient outcomes through strong relationships and customer collaboration, the systems and processes that enable development need to evolve hand in hand with the customers’ professional reality. As doctors keep learning new ways to better treat patients, their tools and training needs must evolve to support them.

Would you like to know more?

Phil recommends that you find a copy of Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, specifically reading it with a perspective on how organizational design can best

You can also read more about the VirtaMed ArthroS™ Knee Inside View and VirtaMed's immersive virtual reality technology.