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Augmented vs Virtual Reality: What Does the Technology Offer Healthcare?

Between them, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are widely predicted to be two of the technologies which help shape the coming decades. But while most of the attention will inevitably be on consumer products and how quickly it takes AR and VR to ‘go mainstream’ in our homes, both technologies are already having a significant impact on healthcare worldwide.

According to research by Goldman Sachs, the global market for AR and VR healthcare technologies will be worth $5.1bn by 2025 – second only to the AR and VR video game market. So why are healthcare industries so excited by AR and VR, what are the differences between them and where are they best deployed to drive improvements in public health?


Source: Statista

Enhancing vs Replacing

AR and VR share plenty of similarities, but there is one fundamental difference which has a knock on effect in how they are being deployed in healthcare. Augmented Reality literally ‘adds to’ reality – you take a real life video image, either viewed on a screen or on a wearable device like Google Glasses, and you augment it with additional digital content. Virtual Reality, on the other hand, is all about creating a complete immersive experience which replaces ‘reality’ altogether.

One knock on effect of this difference is in the equipment each need. To create an immersive alternate reality, VR needs to dominate or take over your real world senses, especially sight and sound. So it is most commonly delivered via a special VR headset. In addition, to create that immersive experience, the headset needs to run high-quality software – something sophisticated enough to imitate the visual, audio and interactive aspects of real world experience.

AR does not quite need the same level of complexity. Although wearable options like Google Glasses exist, AR can just as easily work on a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop – basically any screen connected to a camera. As you shoot ‘live’ video of the real world, an AR software platform simply has to allow additional content to be added to the screen. It doesn’t need to replace reality in the way VR does, and it can make use of any type of existing content – text, images, animations, video, sound – to add to what the viewer is looking at.

In-play vs Preview

In terms of applications in healthcare, we are already finding AR and VR are suited to quite different roles. The immersive qualities of VR make it a very good simulator, so it is excellent for ‘test-driving’ medical procedures. In surgery, for example, VR can be used to provide practitioners with incredibly high-definition 3D illustrations of specific organs or body parts, allowing them to ‘walk through’ or plan a procedure before they get into theatre. This also has obvious benefits for surgical training.

There is also a lot of research being done into the psychological potential of VR, in areas such as behavioural medicine, rehabilitation and pain relief. Many in the field believe the immersive qualities of VR have the potential to work on the brain for therapeutic purposes.

Virtual reality heads

Image source: TechCrunch

However, in all of these examples, the benefits of VR come from the fact that it detaches the user from their immediate environment. By contrast, that makes VR unsuitable for applications in hands-on, or ‘in-play’, medical practice – it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a medic would be encouraged to wear a VR headset as they treat a patient.

This is exactly where AR has the potential to be transformative. Proximie is a great illustration of how this applies to surgery. While VR has positive potential in helping practitioners preview and plan, Proximie’s AR is used in real time in the theatre to support procedures as they happen. A surgeon who requires advice from a specialist on a certain procedure can use a tablet to livestream what they are doing to a consultant at some remote location. The specialist can then in turn guide and instruct by annotating and augmenting the exact same live pictures with whatever rich media features best suit the purpose, all seen in real time by the surgeon in theatre.

Royal Free surgeon uses Proximie

Consultant Plastic Surgeon Ash Mosahebi supporting his registrar in a skin cancer procedure through a livestream from the tablet in the operating theatre to his laptop miles away. Mr. Mosahebi used Proximie’s technology to lend his expertise by using a special camera to draw on a shared view of the patient by marking precisely where the incision should be made for the registrar to see.

While a VR program might allow a surgeon to practice a procedure in a virtual space, AR platforms like Proximie allow them to be guided digitally in real time. This also has key benefits for training and development, as the acid test for any budding surgeon is the experience of carrying out a new procedure for real.

Overall, both AR and VR have their role to play. The best solution for surgery, and for healthcare in general, will be for both technologies to be used side by side to the best of their potential to deliver truly transformative experiences to patients worldwide.