Virtual surgery gets real
What the Oculus Rift could mean for the future of medicine
Technological innovation takes time : virtual reality has been a thing in the medical field for more than three decades, and despite great promises it isn’t widely available yet. Things could change quickly, and the innovation won’t come from the usual suspects in medicine, but the gaming world.
Virtual reality and medicine : a platonic love story
Virtual reality-simulated environments have been used for the training of personnel, most notably for military applications, for more than 35 years. The advantages conferred by being able to train novice personnel in a low- to no-risk simulated environment have long been appreciated by the medical community. The vision of high-quality VR surgery training is quite obvious but the use hasn’t been adopted on a wide scale. The main reasons are it’s costly and far from perfect. In the meantime, the use of screens during surgery itself has become very frequent with the expansion of minimally invasive surgery : the surgeon uses a basic screen for that, which means a short field of view and poor depth perception for him. But virtual reality for surgery has been a very demanding niche market for the last decades ; it could be different in the next years.
Enters the Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset (in its second iteration) made possible by smartphone technologies, developed by Oculus VR, a 2 year-old company recently acquired 2 billions by facebook. The main target for the Oculus Rift (and commercial focus of Oculus VR) is to provide whole new videogame experiences by building immersive worlds. Being a medical device isn’t and probably won’t ever be one of their objective ; they want to be the next platform, as popular as the smartphone. And as Apple probably hadn’t anticipated that the iPhone would have so many ramifications in the medical world, prepare yourself for medical applications with the Oculus Rift
I conducted a project for the Moveo fundation with Dr Thomas Gregory, Professor of Surgery and Medicine, at the Paris Descartes University and surgeon at the European Hospital Georges Pompidou. We used consumer technology to provide a new way to capture a surgery. Two synchronized GoPros cameras were placed on the Dr Gregory’s head while he was performing a total hip replacement.
The footage is great : you get a Hi-res 3D version of the surgery with a great field of view. Watching the scene with the Oculus Rift is a great experience : you are as close as you’ll ever be of being a surgeon.
You can try it there if you have a Rift.
What‘s the point?
The principal aim of this experiment was to provide a great way for students to see a whole surgery through the eyes of a surgeon. When you’re a surgeon in training (for instance, the student on the left of the picture), you always have a task to do during the surgery ; it becomes thendifficult to see what the main surgeon is doing. Being able to live a surgery in the surgeon’s shoes thanks to the Rift is very useful to replay the surgery in detail, pause, fast forward or backwards. It can also be an inspiring way to share and learn new techniques among surgeons.
This is just the beginning : the next objective is interaction, being able to experience a real simulation with real instruments, a complex challenge for the future of VR.
Is the future of surgery owned by facebook?
It depends. The Rift won’t be a medical device : facebook probably doesn’t want to deal with FDA issues and the medical market is a small niche compared to their usual audiences. But it’s clear that the technical advances of the Oculus team (in latency reduction for instance), the systematic sharing of their research and the emergence of skilled VR developpers among game developpers will boost the field of medical VR for the next decades. There will be surely be other medical companies standing on the shoulders of Oculus that will provide more specific medical VR hardware for micro-invasive surgery for instance.
But the Rift, if it’s widely adopted, could be a precious tool for physicians. As the iPhone, they won’t buy it as a medical tool, but as the iPhone, they will use it as a medical tool. They will use it to share cases, surgeries, 3D imagery, and visualize complex data. The resolution of the screen isn’t sufficient enough for the Rift to be amajor radiological interpretation tool right now but it sure could be in the next future, and a very cheap one too! (350$ for the current model when radiology screens can easily cost more than 15 000$). There are some other interesting uses to imagine : think about the use of 3D video capture in teleconsultation for instance… getting new ways to watch people undress has always been a great driver for technology…