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Virtual reality restores the integrity of the human body

April 06, 2017
When cadaver training is a thing of the past and doctors no longer peruse the patient through massive incisions, medical education turns to virtual reality. While the human body once again becomes sacrosanct, medical professionals immerse themselves into human anatomy in more detail than ever before. The tools are already there.

The trend is clear: we keep finding new ways to shift from open surgeries towards minimally invasive interventions, and endoscopic device companies compete on whose tools need smaller and fewer entry portals. Medical professionals see less and less of the insides of their patients, and rightfully so. After all, this is what the Hippocratic Oath ‘do no harm’ calls for. As the window to the real-life human body grows nearly shut, virtual bodies take its place. Many medical procedures can already be practiced on virtual reality simulators, and the various tools developed by companies like Oculus, HTC, Samsung, or Google enable a completely new perspective on the world of surgery.

From marketing tools to educational relevance

Virtual reality is often associated with headsets and full immersion, yet virtual reality is what VirtaMed has always worked on: creating realistic interactive 3D scenes to replace the real-life environment of a human body. “Sometimes we are labeled ‘augmented reality’ because of the original tools and realistic anatomical models we use in combination with virtual reality”, says VirtaMed Co-CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Stefan Tuchschmid. “Whatever the chosen label is, we focus on replacing cadavers and real-life patients with a simulated reality that looks and feels like the real thing.”

Two years ago, VirtaMed built its first immersive virtual reality application for the Oculus Rift headset. The user could visit a virtual showroom that introduced all VirtaMed products and even some that were in development: one conference audience got to see the VirtaMed ArthroS™ Hip module through VR goggles well before the orthopedic extension existed outside the drawing board. Several other immersive scenes where developed as VirtaMed tested the capabilities of the technology, but most of them turned out useful only for marketing or entertainment purposes.

As soon as the HTC Vive was released, featuring improved interaction and the possibility to walk around the scene, VirtaMed decided to do what it does best: create a highly realistic 3D model of inside a human body. The company’s endoscopic simulators already featured high-fidelity volumes with realistic physical behavior, so adapting these volumes into the new immersive headset was a logical extension.

The VirtaMed ArthroS™ Knee Inside View transports users of the VirtaMed ArthroS™ Knee simulator inside a knee joint. The user can walk around the cavities to find important landmarks and use various tools to touch and manipulate the tissues. The module even features “Catch the stars”, a gamified ArthroS™ exercise designed to help learners navigate the cavities effectively.

“Integrating the content that we have already spent years finessing made the technology immediately much more relevant to us: it now has a clear teaching component that fits our existing portfolio”, explains Dr. Tuchschmid. “Marketing still loves it, too”, Dr. Tuchschmid laughs.

New perspective on an old problem

All VirtaMed simulators feature a virtual endoscope or ultrasound probe that shows a lifelike image on a screen, just as it would in the OR. Furthermore, the simulators offer an outside view that lets learners study the anatomy and the tools from many angles in real time while performing a procedure. Adding a deeper layer that allows a learner to enter the body part that’s being operated is just the natural next step in the visualization, says VirtaMed Strategic Project Manager Phil Norris. “It’s a new perspective on an old teaching problem”, he summarizes.

Full immersion has potential for very effective learning: a highly realistic virtual reality environment invites people to use a wide range of their senses and emotions, making the experience new and memorable. More than ever our simulation responds to the learner, with the ability to slow down and stop time, to replay your actions, and to reset your patient. Harnessing this power to serve an educational purpose is what draws VirtaMed to research the technology.

However, despite the vast potential and the media attention, immersive virtual reality technology is but one tool in the company’s toolbox. VirtaMed has a strong track record in creating bespoke solutions for medical associations and industry, and headset applications are simply the latest building block available for problem solvers. “We have seen amazing progress when creating deeper and deeper level of immersion in the virtual environment”, Norris says. “Now we encourage educators around the world to let us know what educational needs we should consider next.”

After all, with new, improving technology we can have it all: an unharmed human body and a fully accessible anatomy for medical professionals to study and probe to their hearts’ content.

Read more about the VirtaMed ArthroS™ Knee Inside View and VirtaMed's immersive virtual reality technology.