Virtual reality is a hot topic right now, and not just because we all haven’t stopped laughing at that “virtual real estate” scam that got popular a little while ago. We use the little parallel universes to play games where we smash up blocks in time with an off-brand dubstep hit, or to learn exactly what a saber-toothed tiger would look like if transported into our modern living room.
And in Cambridge, UK, it can help you save lives. A new mixed-reality training application, called HoloScenarios, is allowing trainee and junior doctors to practice medicine on medically-accurate, holographic “patients” – and in the age of COVID-19 restrictions, it’s being hailed as an invaluable new tool for learning.
“Throughout medical school we would have situations where actors would come in an act as patients,” said junior doctor Aniket Bharadwaj, who was one of the first to try out the new technology. But “with the pandemic a lot of that changed to tablet-based interactions because of the risk to people of the virus,” he explained.
“Having a hologram patient you can see, hear and interact with is really exciting and will really make a difference to student learning,” he said.
For now, the program focuses on common respiratory conditions and emergencies – things like asthma, anaphylaxis, pulmonary embolism, and pneumonia. But future modules are in development that will train up users to cope with cardiology and neurology issues.
“This makes training much more interactive and realistic, and you can safely make mistakes and learn from it,” Bharadwaj said.
While the tech is still in the very earliest stages of being rolled out, eventually the project leaders hope it could be a game-changer worldwide. With the right headset and a smartphone or tablet, learners around the globe may in future be able to access the training scenarios – and their teachers, back in Cambridge, can assess their progress and adjust the medical crisis to match.
“We’re helping to evolve education from a mentorship-based model to one where students around the world can have equal access to top-flight expertise for mastering invention-based clinical skills,” said Dr Arun Gupta, project leader and consultant anesthetist at Cambridge University Hospital.
“Mixed reality is increasingly recognized as a useful method of simulator training,” he added. “As institutions scale procurement, the demand for platforms that offer utility and ease of mixed reality learning management is rapidly expanding.”
And not only is the tech designed to be more accessible geographically, it also helps cut costs. Traditionally, medical simulations require quite a lot of expense: there are dedicated simulation centers to maintain, equipment and faculty who need to be paid, and actors to be hired and trained in things like “what a heart attack actually looks like” – and spoilers, it’s probably not what you think. HoloScenarios require none of that, making them more flexible and less cost-prohibitive, opening them up to far more students overall.
“Our first HoloScenarios module represents a new and incredibly powerful way to use mixed reality for healthcare training, to be followed up by many more modules and new applications delivered soon,” said David King Lassman, founder of the Los Angeles-based tech company GigXR, who are developing the application in partnership with the NHS and Cambridge University.
“Empowering instructors with 360-degree preparation for clinical practice represents a milestone for GigXR that allows us to provide our customers with a library of applications that offers solutions for students from their first courses to continuing education,” he added.
So just how transformative will this new sci-fi-esque training application be? Well … the truth is, we can’t say yet. But luckily, because of the way the program is being run, we will be able to in future – because it’s being coupled with an ongoing analysis of HoloScenarios’ effectiveness as a learning and teaching resource.
“Our research is aimed at uncovering how such simulations can best support learning and accelerate the adoption of effective mixed reality training while informing ongoing development,” said Riikka Hofmann, professor in the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, who is leading the analysis.
“We hope that it will help guide institutions in implementing mixed reality into their curricula, in the same way institutions evaluate conventional resources, such as textbooks, manikins, models or computer software, and, ultimately, improve patient outcomes,” she said.