Companies and researchers continue to develop augmented and virtual reality products to improve health care. Here are some of the latest advances we've found.
As TechRepublic has written before, augmented reality and virtual reality are opening up new possibilities in the medical world. Companies and researchers are continuing to come up with new ideas to use these technologies to solve problems and improve experiences ranging from patient care to equipment maintenance.
1. Maintenance of lab machines
Vuforia, a company which makes AR software for everything from gaming to medical education, created a way to cut machine downtime and reduce service calls in medical labs. The software, which is run on an iPad app right now but will be available on smart glasses in the future, gives lab technicians visual instructions for performing maintenance tasks. Sysmex, a Japanese medical diagnostic device manufacturer, uses the software for to keep blood sample analyzers up and running. If the user needs to clean a certain part of the machine or press a certain button, that part will light up on the iPad display when it's held in front of the machine.
2. Physical therapy
Infinadeck, a company that makes omnidirectional treadmills, is researching how the treadmill could be used for physical therapy when combined with a virtual reality headset. Possible uses they've identified so far: helping people who've had strokes improve their balance and helping people with Parkinson's Disease move around with fewer falls. There's also the possibility of helping people be more fit in general by making exercise more fun. Matt Earnest, director of health applications and research for the company, said people can lose track of time and exercise longer than they intended to when they're playing VR games that involve walking on the treadmill.
3. Making in-flight medical emergencies more manageable
If a passenger has a medical emergency on a flight, across the Atlantic Ocean for example,it's impossible for first responders to reach that passenger. Vital Enterprises, a company that makes AR software for medical and manufacturing uses, is working on a solution that would allow an ER doctor to connect via satellite and guide someone wearing ODG R-7 smart glasses instructions in first aid. "So the person on the ground would be able to see and hear what's going on and the physician on the ground would be able to send instructions that the person could see on the screen," said Vital Enterprises' chief medical adviser Oliver Aalami.
4. Increasing access to pain management treatment
Using virtual reality for pain management isn't a new idea. Researchers at the University of Washington have been working on VR therapy for burn victims for a while. But a group at the Interactive Visualization Lab at the University of Minnesota is working on making this treatment more widely available, creating a 3D environment that can be accessed on a smartphone paired with a Google Cardboard headset. One VR experience they've created can help chronic pain sufferers by guiding them on a virtual meditative walk. Another incorporates vibrating footpads along with a virtual beach environment to create the experience of sitting next to the ocean.
5. Testing medical devices
The team at the Interactive Visualization Lab is also working on ways to test medical devices using VR. For example, they use a supercomputer to simulate how the heart works when the pacemaker lead is installed, and view that simulation on a projection-based VR display. With that display, said lab director Daniel Keefe, "You can view blood flow through the heart and immerse yourself inside it and analyze the vortices and other structures that are there. Because you're in 3D with the data, you can see the spatial relationships better and really get a sense of what's happening."
6. Easier digital impressions for dental work
A German company, iDent, is using AR software to help dentists and orthodontists create digital models of patients' mouths for fillings, crowns, and braces. Normally, the dentist uses a scanner to create a digital model of a patient's mouth. What they're scanning appears on a monitor that, often, is behind them. But, said iDent CEO Sven Holtorf, "if you're scanning the patient's mouth, you have to look to the monitor of the device and you have to turn to the monitor and you're losing contact with the patient." The company's software, called eyeCAD connect, works with Epson's Moverio smart glasses so dentists can see what's going up on the screen, in real time, as they're scanning the patient's mouth. It saves time, allows for more contact with a patient and is more ergonomical for the person doing the scanning.
7. Designing better medical offices
Lowe's is already using VR to help customers envision their home improvements. Now Patterson Dental, a medical supply company, is piloting VR design services for offices. The company's clients, who include dentists and veterinarians, can walk through their planned office and look at the layout of equipment and furniture. "For many of our customers, they may invest only a handful of times in their practices," said Mike Stark, manager of corporate office design. "Being in virtual reality can really allow them to understand that and make the right decisions, then and there, when we can make the changes easily for very little cost versus once it's actually been built."
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