Medical VR and IT: The Infrastructure of Innovation
Virtual reality (VR) and medical applications were made for each other. But medical VR innovations don’t happen in a vacuum. How do health care IT teams make sure technology infrastructure is up to the challenge of this changing reality?
With VR headsets now available off the shelf thanks to projects like Oculus Rift and more specialized offerings emerging as the market heats up, medical advances in VR are picking up speed. As noted by VR Intelligence, for example, physicians at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami were able to save the life of a baby born with one lung and half a heart by creating a VR model that was then manipulated using Google Cardboard. As a result, doctors were able to create a new surgical procedure and perform it expertly the first time, giving the child a second chance at life.
Meanwhile, according to Quartz, VR is now being used to help paraplegics regain limb sensitivity and in some cases walk again. Consider the work of Dr. Shafi Ahmed, who in April 2016 carried out a live-broadcast VR surgical procedure in high definition for more than 50,000 viewers.
The Future of Medical VR
So what’s next for VR in medical applications? It depends on who you ask. According to Medical Futurist, some new applications include creating stress-reducing virtual worlds to help long-term patients cope with time away from friends and family — they could potentially “visit” another country or create virtual art in a fully equipped studio. Dutch company VisitU has created a technology that links young patients with a 360-degree camera in their home, at school or even at a friend’s birthday party. Connected via a smartphone and virtual glasses, sick children are still able to participate in both daily and special activities, even at a distance.
On the other side of the VR coin, medical pros are looking to attempt never-before-seen surgical procedures. As the Smithsonian reports, Dr. Sergio Canavero plans to transplant a human head onto a new body in 2017, allowing a fully paralyzed patient to walk again. Canavero wants to use VR as way to ease the transition between existing and new bodies and limit the chance of a mental and physical breakdown. It’s no surprise that there’s some pushback from the medical community here, but there’s also no denying it’s an audacious effort.
While medical VR offers a huge amount of potential, IT pros get the job of dealing with possible infrastructure problems. The most pressing? Bandwidth.
Forbes recently broke down exactly how much bandwidth would be required for users to experience VR as a full extension of self — everything from sight to sound to hearing. The answer: a staggering 5.2 gigabits per second. For reference, the FCC predicts the future requirements for broadband networks will reach around 25 Mpbs, or 200 times slower than the demands of VR. Sure, this number is aiming high, but for IT pros, bandwidth remains the biggest challenge. If VR is on the corporate agenda, then the more bandwidth, the better.
Next up: standards. Right now, there are none to speak of. Much like the cloud in its infancy, there’s no guarantee that medical VR technologies will play nicely with legacy infrastructure, apps or network architecture. For IT, this means a trial-and-error approach, one that demands support from the C-suite. VR won’t work perfectly out of the box, and it will take time to craft an ideal mix of future tech and current resources.
Last but not least is security. In the same way users can accidentally share corporate secrets via social media, broadcasting VR streams could breach patient confidentiality or disclose network access details. Given the ability of VR to capture and send huge amounts of video data, ongoing IT oversight will be essential.
VR offers big benefits for health care applications. Meanwhile, for IT pros, supporting innovation means addressing key infrastructure issues before this technology becomes medical mainstream.