If you follow technology with any kind of regularity, chances are you’re keeping your eyes on Los Angeles this week for the 21st annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). It’s an event that always keeps me glued to a bunch of different news outlets for a few days — but because it centers around video games and the gaming industry, generally the technologies on display at the conference aren’t particularly relevant here.
I say ‘generally’ because more and more frequently over the past decade or so there’ll be something at the conference that’ll catch my eye and make me think, “Hey, that looks like it’ll be good for way, way more than just gaming.” As of late, that thought process has become, “Hey, that looks like it’ll be good for medical applications.”
Six years or so ago, it was the Microsoft Kinect — a motion-sensing device that allows you to control objects in digital worlds without the use of a controller. Move your hands, arms, and body in real life, and the Kinect would detect your movements and translate them into in-game actions. Its potential as a gaming peripheral was obvious, but the Kinect also enjoyed — or rather, still enjoys — a life outside of the gaming realm as a terrifically useful healthcare tool. From assisting with exercise and physical therapy to helping simulate various medical and surgical scenarios, developers have found myriad ways to utilize the Kinect’s technological capabilities. We’ve mentioned it briefly here before, and some quick Googling will tell you there are numerous Penn Medicine physicians and researchers working with the Kinect to squeeze even more use out of it.
This year, two major technologies on display — the Oculus Rift and the Microsoft HoloLens — are the ones making me think about medical applications.
The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality device that essentially makes you a participant, rather than a spectator, in a digital world. It fits around your head and projects an image that takes up your entire field of view. Like the Kinect, it also possesses the ability to sense your movements — meaning if you want to look around in the digital space, you have to turn your head rather than push a joystick. Peripherals on the horizon include controllers that make it so you can use your hands in that digital world in much the same way you use them in real life. It’s not hard to picture how something like that could be useful for the medical field. We’ve talked about telemedicine here before, but imagine being able to provide an even more interactive and in-depth experience for underserved patient populations. Or, imagine being able to help treat phobias through exposure therapy, all within the safety of a clinical space. Surgical simulators already exist, but the Rift may provide a low-cost, easily accessible alternative that enables more health systems and surgeons to experience ‘hands-on’ training without leaving their chairs.
The HoloLens demo at E3 blew everybody away this year, and for good reason: It’s science fiction brought to life, a pair of glasses that augments the reality around you by displaying 3D objects in real time. And while Microsoft used E3 as a showcase for the technology, they don’t seem keen on making it a device geared primarily toward gaming. Much of their promotional material has shown HoloLens’s (potential) practical, real-world uses — and certainly some of those uses extend into the medical realm. A physician wearing the device could, for example, pull up any X-ray or MRI they need and see it displayed immediately on a wall or desk. Medical students wearing the device could manipulate and learn from 3D anatomical models without requiring actual physical copies of said models. While the product is still far from release, it’s clearly shaping up to be as indispensable to the medical profession as the iPad has become.
For all this optimism, though, it should be noted there are some obvious hurdles. First and foremost: This technology hasn’t become publicly available yet. It’s coming soon, but it’s still not something you can pick up on a shelf at Best Buy. Secondly, the Rift and HoloLens are both wearable devices, and so they may have trouble grabbing the same kind of footholds things like smartphones and the iPad were able to pick up almost immediately in the medical field. Earlier this year, a Penn Medicine study pointed out wearables are less accessible (and perhaps even no more accurate) than smartphones tend to be, and that continues to be true for the time being — but when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion early last year, you can bet it was with the expectation that stuff like the Rift and HoloLens will soon become far more accessible, accurate, and widely used.
And if for some reason you’re unconvinced tools like these will be useful in the medical field within the coming years, consider this: We’re already using things like games and hands-on activities to educate younger — and even current — generations about medical care. I already mentioned surgical simulators, but there’s also the Penn Medicine Medical School camp, wherein students compete in things like the “Laparoscopic Olympics,” and for the younger audience, like the ones who come through Penn Presbyterian Medical Center on Take Your Child to Work Day, relevant games created specifically for the purpose of medical education tend to be the norm.
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s crazy to think how far medicine and technology has come in even just a few decades. Next year’s E3 award winner might be the next decade’s biggest advance in medical education. It’s just another example of how you have to be ready for those sorts of advancements to come from any direction.