This week, the Oculus Rift, the premier virtual reality headset in development since its Kickstarter campaign in 2012, debuted in UK stores. Even at the time of its US release earlier this year, the Rift entered an already erupting VR market. Google had released its smartphone-compatible Google cardboard in 2014, Samsung introduced the Gear VR in late 2015, and in April 2016, HTC and Valve Corporation released the Vive, which won 22 awards at CES the same year. Venture capitalists injected $658 million in virtual reality start-ups in 2015, and $1.1 billion in the first 3 months of 2016 alone.
Media outlets from the Bloomberg to Fortune have wondered if 2016 will be the year of VR. From a sales perspective, there may be truth to this claim: according to Deloitte estimates, 2016 will mark the VR industry’s first billion-dollar year.
Needless to say, virtual reality is having a huge moment. And while the video game industry remains the market leader, other industries – including healthcare – have also made significant strides in the VR space. In 2004, there were about 100 virtual reality-related articles on PubMed; today, there are 6,121. Until recently, virtual reality technology for medical use was primarily cultivated in academic research settings, but in the last few years, private industry interest in the technology has erupted.
According to Goldman Sachs, healthcare now represents the second largest virtual reality market, and it’s already clear how VR has changed the landscape of medicine for all stakeholders.
It’s no longer necessary for real patients to volunteer – knowingly or not – to be a surgeon’s “first.” Virtual reality and simulation technology now allow surgeons to practice complex procedural and cognitive skills prior to operating on real humans. This kind of training has been shown, again and again, to improve surgeon’s performance across a broad range of procedures. Outside of the operating room, virtual reality can also be used to to train healthcare workers in other life-saving procedures, like CPR or advanced life support, and centers like Miami Children’s Hospital have already made big steps towards implementing such technology.
Virtual reality could drastically change the experience of patients admitted to the hospital. The Dutch company VisitU, for instance, allows hospitalized children to interact with friends and family at the patient’s home or school using a smartphone, virtual glasses, and a 360 degree camera. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, adult patients can use virtual goggles to take a break from the hospital environment and be transported to a faraway destination, from a waterfall in Iceland to the depths of the ocean. Virtual reality can also help stroke patients recover with virtual rehabilitation, provide autistic children with social training, and allow veterans with PTSD process their experiences on the battlefield.
Dovetailing off the successes of direct-to-consumer health technologies like FitBit, companies have started to offer health-related virtual reality solutions to the massive consumer market. Vivid Vision, for example, is the first company to offer a solution to correct amblyopia and strabismus (“lazy eye” and “cross eye,” respectively) using VR headsets. Other organizations are exploring the use of virtual reality in promoting stress relief through VR-guided meditation and relaxation techniques. At the University of Georgia, researchers have found that virtual reality simulations, like watching yourself drink a can of soda while your waist and hips enlarge, can discourage unhealthy behaviors and promote healthy ones, thus offering a potential breakthrough in preventive care.
Oculus’s founder, Palmer Luckey, has famously described virtual reality as “the final platform,” the holy grail of interactive technology that can finally make the human brain think it’s in a different place altogether. In medicine, we will likely see this platform integrated with artificial intelligence, sensors, big data analytics, and bio-feedback. In the not-too-distant future, VR could fundamentally change the way healthcare is delivered.