Virtual Medicine 2019 - VR in Healthcare Arrives

I attended Virtual Medicine conference at Cedars Sinai in LA and was struck by the reality of virtual reality in healthcare. It seems that 2019 is a landmark year, when VR in healthcare was less about ‘is this useful’ and more about specific science and technology needs.

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Hearing Dr. Rafael Grossmann speak and give overview of available look-through mixed reality headsets really drove home the point that this tech is here now so start building today. The chances to radically advance both training and practice of medicine are immense. His emphasis on Haptic technologies also keep pushing us forward to consider multisensory experiences.

Dr. Grossmann is part of #LeapNation and I am honored to get to chat with him on occasion as our Magic Leap developer/enthusiast community explores the potential of Spatial Computing.

Skip Rizzo of USC presented their work with digital agents, aka Virtual Humans, in therapy. Very compelling to see their research that humans will more likely be honest with a purely software agent than with a character with a human behind the face. A purely digital character can assuage their fears of judgement and opens up therapy pipeline to billions of people who would not otherwise have access, or courage to seek access.

Dr Shafi Ahmed presented an inspiring talk about using immersive tech to bridge the massive 5 billion person surgery access gap through training and direct intervention. He even is involved now in constructing a hospital. Dr. Ahmed is thinking massive scale, exponential tech to get education and collaborative surgery into the normal working reality.

This strikes a chord in me, as ever since a trip to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia I have become fascinated by a vision of hospitals becoming more architectural, more like churches: custom buildings designed to facilitate healing through their very structure, moving beyond florescent lights and particle board and toward deeply meaningful architecture.

Was compelling to hear from Dr David Rhew, head of Healthcare and Fitness at Samsung. Connecting the dots between visuals, tracking and even physical interventions via exoskeleton is a fascinating nexus that can yield impressive results. I continue to regret that exoskeleton technology was not available for my now deceased grandmother whom retained mental acuity as she was every year more and more confined to wheelchairs and seated postures. Directed walking interventions are a rich frontier, coupled with cognitive XR therapies we could see people living not just longer lives but better lives for longer times.

Heard a great talk from Dr. Brandon Birckhead on the scientific and economic realities of testing all this innovation. Innovation in the basic science side will be needed as well as the more ‘flashy’ applications arena. I am hoping that more companies will step up and help fund this research as it will create markets for their systems and hardware.

There were so many great talks and panels, I only got to see a handful, the full speakers list is available on the website, and hopefully they will make the videos available! Here are a collection of pictures from panels:

Closing out the conference, Dr. Brennan Spiegel showed a very useful spectrum to help situate what kind of experiences we can create and how to utilize them in a holistic manner. Along with a call to respect the real suffering that this new technology can address, and not over-promise. Immersive tech for medicine needs grounded science and respectful approaches, keep the hype in check even as the excitement grows!

Got to experience many different vendors displaying. Of note was just how many pain relief or relaxation VR experience companies there were, mostly using the Oculus Go system and 360º videos for content. This is a hot field and it will be fascinating to see what brands stick around by differentiating themselves through features, support, standardization, etc. Hospitals want to purchase VR for pain relief, patient comfort, and also training and simulation. Speaking with different vendors, particularly simulation vendors, was very enlightening. VR is a massive leap forward for training, as it will enable practitioners to get beyond just having tidbits and facts and toward practical readiness. VR training is a revolution already here, while VR therapeutics is still emerging.

Saw some new hardware too.

Experienced a surgical simulation inside of HP’s latest Windows Mixed Reality headset Reverb (specs here) and can confirm that the visuals are amazing. The quality of the display is finally good enough to let me totally forget that I’m looking at screens and focus instead on the content. This is the ‘retina display’ moment for VR hardware.

What really caught my eye was a 180º projector called Broomx capable of covering an entire room with projected images. This is an exciting development that could drastically reduce the cost of creating immersive CAVE systems.

UCSD Calit2 StarCAVE system 2012, photography by John Hanacek

CAVE systems have an immense benefit in being literal environments, allowing participants to use normal human social cues and gestures ‘for free’ without needing to build in avatars or any such things, and without the synchronization challenges and cost of getting each participant to wear individual spatial computing glasses like hololens or magic leap. Yet they are often constructed of many panels, either back projected or LCD screens. Having just a few Broomx projectors be able to cover a full 360º area drastically reduces cost and complexity, perhaps even brings portability to this powerful tool once reserved for labs, see below for example:

In closing, immersive technologies are here to stay for medicine, in both training and therapy.

A nexus of science, art and human practices is needed to move this possibility space forward into useful elements, networks and standards. There is still research needed and much work to do.

I aim to push into new frontiers with holohealing.com focusing on bringing ancient traditions and deep symbolism into look-through spatial computing headsets like Magic Leap and Hololens.

Exciting revolutionary change is happening right now, 2019 is immersive technology's arrival moment; from the labs and experiments to the real world.

Read more about related research conference:

Selfies: Your Face In Networked Space

Between us sits the grand mediator. We are increasingly talking with one another, maintaining and initiating friendships, even relationships through the grand mediator that is the Internet. As we continue to utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we are inevitably bringing more of the subtleties of human interaction into cyber space. Internet-mediated conversations are filling up with expressivity and emotionality conveyed by the most ancient and powerful emoticon of all: our faces.

Now we can talk with anyone instantly, but conveying ourselves accurately without our best tool is difficult if not impossible. So much of conversation is sub textual layers conveyed by our original emoticons. Yet a video call is often not a possibility, or would indeed be a nuisance, and fully realized expressive 3D avatars do not yet exist. We need a way to bring more nuances to digital engagement within limited bandwidth constraints and without causing a drag on time demanded per engagement. So we have set about fixing the problem through a misunderstood trend: selfies.

I'll admit, I was skeptical of selfies at first, but then I realized their connecting power.

I'll admit, I was skeptical of selfies at first, but then I realized their connecting power.

I think people who bemoan the trend are missing what selfies are being used for at their core. Beyond the surface layer of vanity they function as instantly created avatar surrogates allowing us to more meaningfully insert ourselves into the cyber world. More than mere pictures; combined with the Internet, they’re a way to send yourself somewhere else, and in turn receive someone else.

Selfies are just a means to an end, a momentary digitization of yourself and your context that you add to the data pool and exchange with others. Selfies in the networked world are about fixing the communications gap by filling in an emotional and expressive component. No static avatar image or emoticon can truly convey what your individual face can express, so instead you digitize yourself to show others.

We see the selfie as a tool most notably with apps like Snapchat that are indicative of the broader trend often called the ‘Alive Web.’ Snapchat can be like hanging out with a friend anywhere on Earth, all the time. “Look over there at that thing!” they send in visual form, and you say, “wow what a cool thing, here’s my expression which is unique and maybe funny too,” and send them your avatar. This can apply not just to platonic friends, but also initiations of potential relationships. When meeting a special someone in the physical world, many people spend a great deal of time beforehand prepping their faces and practicing the interaction itself. Now they also spend time preparing to ensure optimal digitization.

Usage of selfies enables a richer form of the kind of quick bite interaction that thrives in the networked world. They fill a specific niche in the growing gradient of interaction modalities and further enable our capacity to interface in ever-more precise ways.

Selfies are just a response to a missing capability, a tool to further facilitate networked social interaction.  As our existence is increasingly enveloped in and mediated by the network, we are finding clever ways to bring the nuance of our humanity with us. Yet our conceptions of relationships and even the nature of the self will invariably adapt as we journey ever deeper into networked existence.

For those concerned that something is being lost in the transition to a networked existence I would ask that you consider what is being gained. Never before has humanity been this interconnected. We have always longed for connection and now it is ubiquitous. Current technology has its set of sacrifices, but we are filling in the gaps. As we utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we will continue to bring our humanity with us.

Our network connections will grow in strength and nuance until some day soon we will cross a threshold. Soon our networked presence will be as nuanced as our physical. Soon we will have the ability to send a meaningful majority of our individual perception and our individual self anywhere on Earth at any moment. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook know this, they spent $2 billion on the Virtual Reality headset company Oculus to ensure their place in this future.

The grand mediator’s role is becoming so pervasive that its visible status of mediator is ebbing away. It is becoming thoroughly transparent in practice. Through better technology and clever usage the Internet will transcend beyond something we connect to in order to connect with each other, and become just us connecting with each other.

Selfies represent a stepping-stone along our grand path, a new tool for our humanity to express itself through the grand mediator. Better tools are coming, they always are.

- JH