Augmented Reality in Healthcare: Benefits Get Real

With 21 million daily users, Pokémon Go became the biggest US mobile app of 2016. Ever since, IT experts have been pretty sure AR will make mobile apps great again. Apple’s take on Augmented Reality is the further proof that AR is a game changer — after all, the company’s tech predictions most often come true. The question is, can we use Augmented Reality somewhere else other than entertainment — medicine, for example? It turns out we can.

Augmented Reality applications in healthcare

Unlike Virtual Reality apps which replace user environment with computer-generated images, AR software injects non-existent objects into our physical world. AR experience can be achieved with no dedicated gear; all you need is a smartphone or tablet. The software uses QR codes or GPS data to place virtual objects on top of a user’s camera feed. More complex AR offerings like face swap apps (Snapchat, MSQRD, Mix Booth, etc.) rely on the image recognition technology to analyze user pics and apply transformation. By 2021, mobile Augmented Reality will be a $ 108 billion market, thus outpacing the entire VR industry by $ 33 billion.

Let’s get back to augmented reality medicine solutions, though. You’ll be surprised to learn how many AR healthcare apps and devices have already made their way to the world’s leading hospitals!

Top 3 Augmented Reality medical applications

· Patient care and treatment. Although Google Glass is considered a miserable failure (and the technology itself is not to blame; it’s just that consumers didn’t understand what problems it solves!), doctors successfully use the gadget in the operating theatre to broadcast complex surgeries worldwide and access patients’ computer tomography scans in a hands-free mode. The Augmentarium, a VR/AR laboratory at the University of Maryland, is currently working on a similar headset projecting vital patient data onto its lens. Also, there’s AccuVein, a sleek device that illuminates a patient’s veins, thus boosting the first stick rate up to 90.3% and turning blood draw into an almost pleasant experience. As of now, Augmented Reality physician-oriented medical applications are intended to reduce risks associated with minimally invasive and complex surgeries and improve medical student competence;

· Patient education. According to the Institute of Medicine, 50% of US adults have a somewhat limited level of health literacy (with 9 out of 10 patients having difficulty in understanding basic health information). 2.1 million US citizens suffer from disorders related to painkiller abuse. At least 30% of antibiotics prescribed in the USA are unnecessary. In other words, the current state of American healthcare system is disastrous — and it’s not the worst by international standards. Unless patients are able to fully understand the data provided by physicians and make the right healthcare decisions, things will remain as they are. And that’s why healthcare providers have high expectations for new technologies. The EyeDecide mobile app, for example, makes use of a smartphone camera to simulate the impact of common eye conditions (glaucoma, cataracts, refractive errors, etc.) that affect human vision, thus enabling patients to catch diseases early on. Pharmaceutical companies develop AR applications featuring 3D models of drugs and viruses they’re supposed to kill, which can be used by both patients and medical students. Designed for Google Glass, the Brain Power application helps autistic kids acquire social skills (i.e., decode emotions, learn language and navigate social situations) and engage with the world around them. And more is to come — provided digital health companies continue to invest in AR (and identify use cases for it);

· Lifestyle and wellness. Companies that major in Android/iOS app development release hundreds of fitness and lifestyle applications on a regular basis. The global wearable tech market will be worth $ 34 billion by 2020. IoT healthcare industry is booming, too; with smart scales, connected insulin pumps and elderly patient monitoring systems which allow people to monitor their well-being and reach out to their doctor by pressing a single button, can Augmented Reality bring something new to the table? Back in 2014 Small World, an innovation company from Melbourne, partnered with the Australian Breastfeeding Association to conduct Google Glass trial aimed at providing assistance to mothers who struggle with breastfeeding. Also, there’s Theodolite, a multi-purpose AR application that places real-time position, inclination and altitude data on top of a camera feed; the app is a real catch for travels, hikers and extreme sports amateurs. The DanKam: Colorblind Fix app helps the colorblind see colors as other people see them — even if only on a smartphone screen.

By 2025, the global AR/VR healthcare market will reach $ 5.1 billion. The figure doesn’t come out of thin air. Considering the fact that IBM’s Watson is 40% better at diagnosing cancer than human doctors, the future of healthcare most certainly lies in emerging technologies.

However, there are many factors preventing AR adoption in healthcare. These include the high cost of innovative software development, the lack of unified Augmented Reality displays that would adjust to both peripheral and binocular field of view of the human eye and the complexity of UIs enabling users to interact with virtual objects. Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab (check out his profile at r-stylelab.com) believes the low quality of AR/VR content (which is currently similar to pop-ups and ad banners!) is the primary reason why “mixed reality” is not mainstream yet. As long as AR vendors manage to create a totally different and engaging user experience (Pokémon Go says hi), the technology will find its applications in multiple industries including education, advertising, retail and healthcare.