Jennifer Jolly takes us inside the Children's Hospital, Los Angeles, where a groundbreaking new VR simulation is helping train doctors to better save the lives of children. It's part of Facebook's Oculus for Good program. Jennifer Jolly/Special for USA TODAY
Earlier this year, inside a cramped, windowless corner office at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, I put on a virtual reality headset and tried to save a little girl’s life.
It wasn’t real, of course, but it sure felt like it was. The blotchy, wheezing, seven-year-old struggling to survive while suffering from anaphylactic shock was nothing more than a bunch of digital polygons. Still, the experience triggered every real human reaction you’d expect, flooding my brain with fear, stress, and anxiety.
Once I slipped the VR goggles off of my head, one other emotion struck me too: excitement. After a few tough years for the virtual reality industry, a wave of medical VR programs are breathing new life into this cutting-edge technology.
Just this past week, VR made headlines for helping surgeons separate conjoined twins in Minnesota. The National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center uses it to find weak spots on viruses. Virtual reality also made remarkable headway treatingPTSD in soldiers, educating pediatric heart patients and their families, and speeding up rehab in stroke victims.
“The medical uses are pretty amazing,” says Unity Technologies’ Tony Parisi, one of the early pioneers of virtual reality. “We’re seeing the perfect confluence. Anything you can do to train people more quickly, effectively, and cheaply is a boon to the healthcare industry. VR is a rapidly evolving technology that solves a lot of problems here.”
VR has yet to find the right problem to solve for mainstream consumers, and has suffered for it. The technology that powers high-priced headsets like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR — and even portable VR gadgets like Google’s DayDream and Samsung’s Gear VR — is undeniably impressive, but hasn’t lived up to the hype.
In 2016, analysts at Super Data Research predicted as much as $5.1 billion dollars in sales of VR hardware, software and accessories for the year. The reality was actually around $1.8 billion. Even those companies that bet big on virtual reality have recentlyslashed prices, too, throwing in freebies, and doing just about anything to get VR gadgets off the shelf and into the hands of everyday people.
Using an Oculus simulator, a doctor checks the pupil of a virtual girl undergoing anaphylactic shock. (Photo: Oculus Rift)
Does that mean VR is a flop, akin to Google Glass? That augmented reality predecessor to VR was met with jeers and criticism by the general public, and Google shelved the product before announcing its reboot as a business device earlier this month.
Not a consumer flop, says Tirias Research principal analyst Kevin Krewell, but rather "over-inflated and over-hyped."
"When Facebook bought Oculus for two billion dollars everyone said, Mark Zuckerberg just bet two billion on it, ‘Oh, this is going to be huge,'" Krewell notes.
"It will be, just not overnight.”
VR gadgets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony’s PSVR are well liked, and receive positive reviews from the tech community. Yet they've yet to strike a nerve with the masses, likely due to a combination of cost, content and comfort.
The deep-pocketed backers of virtual reality have faith it will happen. Until then, it's gaining momentum in business and science applications.
“The heart is a complicated three-dimensional organ, and it’s really hard to describe what’s going on inside of it — especially when something is going wrong,” says David M. Axelrod, MD. The clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine is spearheading the development of a new virtual reality program called Stanford Virtual Heart.
Dr. Joshua Sherman, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, has been using virtual reality simulations to prepare for real-life medical emergencies. (Photo: Roddy Blelloch/ Special for USA Today)
Through a VR headset, the program gives medical trainees the freedom to explore and manipulate a lifelike human heart as it hovers in front of them, spotting defects and becoming more familiar with the issues heart patients experience. “Virtual reality eliminates a lot of that complexity by letting people go inside the heart and see what’s happening themselves — it’s worth way more than a thousand words.”
The freedom that VR affords is priceless, but it’s also helping to reduce cost. At Children’s Hospital L.A., doctors are trading high-priced training mannequins for VR headsets, ditching the cost of purchasing and maintaining plastic models, which can top $430,000 every year, and adopting a virtual trauma center where lifelike virtual patients are fighting for their lives.
“The VR patient changes color of skin, monitor changes, the sound of the monitor changes, those are all cues to us that okay, I have to do this now or else I’m going to be in trouble,” Dr. Joshua Sherman, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at CHLA, says. “And when you make that action, you watch it change and that gives you positive reinforcement that you did the correct thing, or the incorrect thing, if the situation gets worse. VR is amazing for that.”