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  • The Medical Futurist

Why does augmented reality have so much potential in healthcare?

Augmented reality (AR) has shown an amazing development curve since Boeing researcher, Thomas Caudell coined the term “augmented reality” in 1990. The technology changed how an NFL football game is perceived through television. Emmy award winning Sportvision introduced the yellow first down line painted on the field in 1998, and the game has never been the same. Yet, AR does not only have a transformative impact on sports broadcasting but also on navigation, architecture, tourism, military or healthcare education and all the sub-fields of education in general. According to the latest forecasts, the AR device market is expected to reach $659.98 million by 2018.

Its counterpart, virtual reality (VR) has a somewhat similar innovation pattern and it is also expected to boom in the next couple of years. Around $407 million growth is estimated on the VR device market by 2018. That’s why the two technologies are often mixed up, although there are significant differences between the two. While AR lets users see the real world and projects digital information onto the existing environment, VR shuts out everything else completely and provides an entire simulation. It is a logical consequence that VR is more immersive, and certain, so far unfounded fears also surfaced about the possibility of its addictive nature.

Both AR and VR have an aptitude for changing healthcare for the better in the future, they just have different functions in it. In the case of AR, the use of technology in medicine and healthcare is basically a natural consequence of the technological development and data boom. Plenty of information, but also very specific kind of data has been flooding physicians for years. The paper format was changed for electronic health records (EHR), but the information flow remained very static so far. It must become more and more seamless and help the healing process. Patients’ lives cannot depend on whether the doctor can access the latest and most relevant data – and AR can help us with it.

As data access and information processing technologies are already on an advanced level, the next step is to bring significant, even life-saving information into the doctors’ field of vision. For example, if there is a complicated operation, there might be very little time for checking whether the patient has a certain type of allergy. So, instead of searching among papers or in the EMR, the surgeon could see the relevant data on his AR screen in seconds. Yet, not only data but also other types of medical information, such as the location of the veins or organs might be projected onto the environment helping physicians doing their job.

Google Glass

One of the most popular platforms for working out medical AR solutions is the Google Glass, with which Shafi Ahmed carried out the first operation streamed live in 2014. The wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display was made available to testers and developers in 2013. However, it failed to catch on with the broader mainstream market, in the last years, the old technology is taking on a new function in healthcare.

Since December 2013, doctors used Google Glass at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center to see whether it can facilitate either doctor-patient interactions or the input of data. Huge QR codes hang on the walls and doors of patient rooms. These can be scanned when the doctor steps into the room, and Google Glass transmits the relevant patient records and information. The device makes it possible for doctors to keep eye contact with the patient while receiving pertinent information right away.

Yet, there are plenty of other innovative ventures as well aiming to bring AR to healthcare. I decided to put together a list with the most relevant companies developing groundbreaking augmented reality solutions.

HoloLens by Microsoft

Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic have partnered with Microsoft to release a HoloLens app called HoloAnatomy to visualize the human body in an easy and spectacular way. The app offers such an amazing insight into the biology of the human organism, that it landed first place for the immersive virtual reality and augmented reality category during the 2016 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival Science Media Awards competition.

With Microsoft’s HoloLens VR Headset, app users are able to see everything from muscles to the tiniest veins before their eyes on a dynamic holographic model. I believe it will revolutionize medical education, as students will be able to see the human body in 3D instead of the usual working method: black-and-white pictures and written descriptions in books.

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