The presence of Oculus at the recent mHealth Summit has some wondering what the future holds for virtual reality in healthcare.
If you’ve never zoomed through the mitral valve of a beating heart, shrunken down to the size of a blood cell as you swoop into the main chamber, you really should. Experiencing the heart close up, flying across a field of electrically-snapping neurons or tunneling through the bowel is an extraordinary experience, up there with Disney magic when it comes to shock and awe value.
While the guys from Oculus VR seemingly spent half of the recent mHealth Summit camped out in the press room, demoing their amazing virtual reality headsets for editors like myself, they have a much bigger goal in mind than entertaining members of the Fourth Estate.
Oculus wants to be a healthcare player, though exactly how is still in doubt.
Oculus VR is owned by Facebook, whose $2 billion dollar buyout of the virtual reality tech developer closed in July 2014. The company’s initial product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, drew $2.4 million in funding during its first Kickstarter round in 2012. Then in mid-December, the smokin’ hot firm raised $75 million in series B funding to finalize development of its virtual reality platform ecosystem.
The startup also announced a new product in early December, the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition. The new headset, which is available in a special developer edition for use with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, takes the company in an intriguing direction, freeing it from dependence on existing content and turning it loose to use apps and Web content.
Why show up at a healthcare show?
All of this is intriguing if you’re a gamer or like stories of dramatic tech startup success. But none of this answers the question, really, of what the virtual reality company was doing at the mHealth Summit. What can developers of a virtual reality toy aimed at enabling fully-immersive gaming offer the healthcare market?
The short answer, apparently, is that the company sees an opportunity to offer patient education via content like the human body model I so happily cruised through at the show. But what is its big play?
Simply slapping a user interface over healthcare processes has been done, of course. And for all the struggles it has had in the market, Google Glass still has fanatical fans in the healthcare world. (In fact, one might think the Glass is already doing everything one could ask for from a device perched on the nose.)
Oculus reps are quick to point out that while they offer virtual reality, Google Glass (only) goes for augmented reality. And to be fair, having tested both, full-on immersion in a virtual world clearly offers a different experience than a pair of souped-up eyeglasses, however augmented they may be. Still, what’s the must-have application for virtual reality in healthcare?
To date, I’d suggest, no one is sure -- including Oculus. Though clinicians are using virtual reality immersion to calm the fears of patients with PTSD and other mental health conditions, to date few other major healthcare uses have emerged.
Possible future apps include environments for medical training, letting amputees feel as though they still have a missing limb, augmentation for telemedicine encounters and even palliative care to give the terminally ill a chance to experience a form of normalcy, according to a Forbes piece by futurist Emmanuel Fabella, MD. But these are still far from available.
In the meantime, Oculus seemingly hasn’t found a killer app which will turn its Oculus Rift VR glasses into a healthcare staple. It will be fascinating to see how far they get!
About the author: Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.