The Stanford Virtual Heart: Educating Professionals in the 21st Century

by Stanford, Lighthaus, Oculus

Collaborating with Lighthaus Inc. and with support from The Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center at Stanford and Oculus VR, we’ve created The Stanford Virtual Heart. It’s a Virtual Reality (VR) congenital heart experience that will change the way we train healthcare professionals and educate families.

Here are a few links; Contact me or David Sarno at Lighthaus to learn more.

The Stanford Virtual Heart FAQ:

Who built and funded The Stanford Virtual Heart? The Stanford Virtual Heart was built by the Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center at Stanford and Lighthaus Inc., an award-winning virtual reality studio that has pioneered immersive experiences in healthcare and education. The founder and CEO of Lighthaus, David Sarno, collaborates with Dr. David Axelrod, a Stanford pediatric cardiologist. (Dr. Axelrod is also the lead medical advisor and a partner at Lighthaus.) The Stanford Virtual Heart was funded by the Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center at Stanford and Oculus VR, a Facebook subsidiary.

How much does it cost; can I buy it for my medical school? The Stanford Virtual Heart is an educational program that we are sharing with selected pilot medical centers and educational programs. It is not currently for sale, but if you’re interested in becoming a member of our Pilot Program, please contact Dr. David Axelrod (

Are any other programs using it? Yes, there are a number of centers in the US, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and the Middle East that have joined the Pilot Program. These centers will use The Stanford Virtual Heart to teach and educate patients and trainees.

Are some Pilot Program centers conducting research? Some Pilot Program centers are using the Stanford Virtual Heart to design and conduct research studies on the educational efficacy of VR.

How long did it take to build, and how much did it cost to build? We built the first heart lesion in the Stanford Virtual Heart in approximately 4 months — from inception of the idea to a workable demo. The remainder took an additional 6 months or so. The cost has been approximately $100,000 — not including the many hours of sweat equity that David Sarno and David Axelrod have poured into the project!

How many heart defects are built, and how many are planned to be built? We currently have a normal heart, 6 ‘simple’ cardiac defects built (ASD, VSD, AS, PS, PDA, Coarctation), and the most complex cardiac defect that we specialize in managing at Stanford: Tetralogy of Fallot, Pulmonary Atresia, and Major Aortopulmonary Collaterals (MAPCAs). A VR model of hypoplastic left heart (HLHS) is in construction and available in the experience as well. We are in the process of building an additional more complicated congenital heart defects. Eventually, we’re going to build out a complete experience of approximately 25 heart defects.

Who is the intended audience? The Virtual Heart is aimed at two main groups: patients/families and students/trainees. (It’s not really intended to train surgeons how to perform congenital heart surgery.)

If I want to use this program, what hardware would I need? You’d need a VR ready computer with a gaming graphics card, and a VR hardware setup. The total cost for both items is usually about $1500 USD.

How did your group get this idea? In 2014, Lighthaus built an iPad application to explain a complicated heart defect (tetralogy of Fallot, pulmonary atresia, and MAPCAs). Dr. Axelrod frequently takes care of patients with this defect after surgical repair, and in the ICU families would frequently tell him “how helpful that MAPCAs application was.” This mini-documentary shot by Seeker Media (a Discovery Channel company) tells the story well.

How can I get in touch with the team that’s creating The Stanford Virtual Heart? You can email Dr. David Axelrod at or David Sarno at and we will be happy to discuss our work with you.

Is there any research showing education effectiveness of the VR Heart? Showing efficacy of our work is important to us. We have preliminary data (in submission) showing that students can learn the anatomic material presented in the VR heart, and that they prefer this mode of learning to other methods that are typically used to teach congenital heart disease. There are at least 4 research studies in various stages of design, including a multi-center randomized study of the educational effectiveness of the experience.

Is this a computer generated representation of heart defects? Can you use patient specific scans? The hearts you see here are computer generated, engineered by our team and based on high-fidelity heart models and pathologic specimens. Currently, patient-specific scans don’t have the resolution necessary to allow learners to jump inside a moving heart. Stay tuned, since we’ll be integrating scans soon!

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