An expert lays out how the medtech industry can adapt to virtual and augmented reality changing the healthcare landscape.

Marta Hlova

October 11, 2018

8 Min Read
What Does It Take to Develop a VR Solution in Healthcare

Technology is changing the face of healthcare as we know it. virtual reality and augmented reality that once were associated only with game and film industries are now becoming a real game-changer in healthcare. Gone are the days when students practiced on real patients. Today, VR and AR solutions can not only improve medical education and training but also provide profound patient treatment, medical rehabilitation, consultation, and diagnosis. What’s next?

AR & VR in Healthcare: The Industry Landscape

A recent report by Research and Markets states that augmented and virtual reality in the healthcare market reached $769.2 million in 2017. Experts predict that this figure will grow to $ 4,997.9 million by 2023. According to the Goldman Sachs Global Investment research, the application of VR and AR in healthcare will take second place after video games in terms of the market size in 2025.

In spite of such positive growth prospects, AR and VR are not widely adopted across the healthcare sector as yet. It’s true, virtual reality has gained much attention in recent years. However, it’s still in its infancy. As the report by Research and Markets claims, the key players in the market for AR and VR in healthcare are Google (US), Microsoft (US), Psious (Spain), Mindmaze (Switzerland), Medical Realities (UK), and Oculus VR (US). Despite the great hype and investment that flows from these corporations, there are three major hurdles that hold back VR and AR to be applied on the full-fledged scale.

Three Hurdles That Hold Back VR and AR Adoption in Healthcare

Lack of killer content

From a user’s perspective, compelling VR content that would transfer them into the new reality and provide quality experiences is exactly what is most valued. A recent survey by VR Intelligence and SuperData found out that 52% of respondents believe that lack of content is a great barrier against the adoption of VR.

In the healthcare sector, this problem is especially critical, since patient outcomes are dependent on how good the content is. Thus, the key challenge healthtech is facing now is producing quality VR applications for a variety of platforms and needs. Therefore, healthtech VR startups need to make sure they have the right talent, including skilled 3D artists, VR programmers, experienced designers and other specialists that can craft engaging content that will live up to the potential of the VR technology.

Expensive and uncomfortable hardware

Virtual reality adoption goes hand-in-hand with the advancement of VR hardware. The technology has come a long way since the appearance of the first headsets, yet it still has many limitations. They are, first of all, price, convenience, and the level of realism.

Even though first-generation headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have fallen in price, the majority of healthcare institutions are reluctant to invest in them. Also, the devices have a number of limitations in terms of animation and sound rendering, the field of view, motion tracking, display quality, etc. On the one hand, we have mobile headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard that give mobility but don’t offer the immersiveness users expect. Thus, devices need to be bulky, and hence not mobile, in order to create more immersive experiences. This makes them not accessible for the everyday consumer. Yet another important aspect of using VR headsets in healthcare that has to be addressed by the hardware producers is hygiene.

VR hardware in healthcare requires to be lightweight, portable and affordable. With technology continuing to develop, this goal is achievable in the long run.

VR & AR training

Patients usually have little or no exposure to VR devices and content. This leads to the long adaptation period. The challenge of educating patients to use headsets will remain, at least, until VR becomes a mainstream technology. At this point, VR and AR development companies should focus on delivering natural realistic experiences to the users and reduce motion sickness to the minimum. Also, they should produce user-friendly apps to ensure a short learning curve.

Among other obstacles that hover over healthtech are legal issues and regulations, lack of funding and enough research studies about the health effects of VR and AR.

How To gather a Professional VR Development Team

With all the above-mentioned challenges in mind, you are all set to launch your own VR product development project. If we look at what it takes to develop a VR experience, everything comes down to building a dedicated development team. First of all, you need to gather a group of specialists who know the ins and outs of creating immersive experiences and working with VR engines. So, if you’re thinking of hiring your own VR development team, make sure you have the right people for the following roles:

  • A programmer who has wide experience in developing VR experiences based on the chosen game engine, such as Unity or Unreal.

  • A concept artist’s job is to create illustrations conveying the idea of the VR solution. This specialist creates visual design of the assets, characters, environments, and other elements of the VR experience.

  • A 3D artist turns concept art into VR assets. This professional creates all the elements of the VR/AR experience, including graphics, effects, and animations.

  • A VR designer creates and develops the idea behind the VR experience. These specialists know well how VR works and feels depending on the hardware it’s combined with. They design the user flow, his or her interaction with the VR environment, the possibilities the solution would offer and, in case of MR, its connection with the real world.

  • Quality Assurance Specialist’s main role is to test hardware, software, platform integration, and device compatibility. A strong combination of technical skills and innovative approaches to manual and test automation are essential for testers who work with AR & VR solutions.

Additionally, you may need some more experts such as a sound designer or a professional writer who will help you with voice acting and storytelling.

Choosing The Tools for Developing a VR solution

When you choose an engine for your VR solution, it’s important to weigh up all the pros and cons of each technology, such as price, capabilities, availability of engineers, and others. For instance, concerning the price, Unity offers a completely free version ready for download. It also has the Pro version which costs $1,500. Unreal Engine 4, by contrast, is completely free of charge. It has a royalty fee of 5% though, which means that you will need to give 5% of everything you earn.

Both engines offer great asset stores where you can choose everything you need from realistic animation, 2D art and 3D models, SDKs, templates, and tools which speed up the development process. In terms of graphics capabilities, Unreal Engine has a competitive advantage over Unity. It provides a number of complex particle simulations systems, advanced dynamic lighting, and other functionality which allows developing immersive VR experiences.

Successful VR & AR Healthcare Startups

Although adoption of VR and AR in healthcare might look slow, the number of healthtech startups is growing steadily around the world. Below, we compiled a list of startups you will hear a lot about in the upcoming years.

Vivid Vision is a San Francisco startup that supports all the major VR headsets and helps people improve their vision. Patients play VR games on the computer at home or under clinician’s supervision. The experiences are designed to treat amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (crossed eyes), and vergence disorders (eyes not moving together properly). As of May 2017, Vivid Vision raised $2,200,000. The solution is already used by 88 clinics around the world.

VRHealthis an Israeli healthtech company with a headquarters in Boston. It develops several VR/AR products designed for physical therapy, psychology, cognitive rehabilitation, pain management, and coordination disorders. Its solutions are used across 30 locations in the US. The company utilizes VR and AR technology to deliver real-time data analytics to patients and clinicians. Their solutions can be used not only in the hospital but also at home. You don’t need to go to the hospital to be evaluated. It can be done remotely and when you go to the doctor, your profile is already there for diagnosis or treatment.

ImmersiveTouchis a Chicago VR solution for surgical training that is utilized today in top medical centers such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Calgary, and the University of Chicago. This innovative VR platform provides an immersive 3D operating experience for surgeons allowing them to see and take part in the whole surgical procedure. Besides, doctors can also upload patient scans in Virtual Reality for case review or detailed surgery planning.

Psious is a Spanish behavioral healthtech company that offers a Psious Toolsuite solution to people who suffer from anxiety-related disorders. With the help of medical experts, they created its own unique content - relaxation exercises which help patients suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. Through a smartphone and VR glasses, patients can easily transfer into a parallel reality which mental health professionals can use in their clinical practice.

jDome BikeAround is an augmented reality developed by Swedish company Brighter. It is targeted at managing panic disorder and anxiety of elderly people and motivating them to do cardiac and mental training in a safe way. The solution offers the patients to take a ride on a training bike in front of the hemispherical jDome screen where the AR experience shows streets layout integrated with Google’s map service Google Street View. The product lets the patients return to places they recognize and offers an efficient way to physical and cognitive exercise.

Summing Up

Technology in healthcare is making a difference. Never before has it been possible to be diagnosed remotely, experience surgical procedure, or educate yourself about health conditions by simply sitting at home with VR headsets or smart glasses on. Despite all the challenges healthtech is facing now, the industry is projected to thrive and transform the way patients and doctors experience and practice healthcare. Today, we are already witnessing the first steps of healthcare innovations. And companies that succeeded in developing VR and AR solutions in this field are bright examples of how technology can improve everyday patients’ and doctors’ lives.

About the Author(s)

Marta Hlova

Marta Hlova is a creative Marketing Manager who works with N-iX to help businesses implement technology transformations. Marta believes that success comes to those who hustle and are always looking to learn new things.

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