Smart Healthcare Trends: Part 2, Augmented Reality

For Part 1 in this series where I look at trends in Smart Healthcare please click here

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) is the field of study concerned with meshing the real world with computer generated data and images to provide an enhanced view of reality. AR has been used in rehabilitation to encourage movement in patients suffering with akinesia, which is a disorder that is characterised as a loss or absence of voluntary movement. One study by Coiera in 1996 looked at a project that “projected virtual objects on to the patients’ physical world to give them the impression that they were walking through them, therefore restoring their mobility”. Coiera cites issues with the current (as of 1996) hardware displays in addition to ethical considerations as the major limiting factors to AR adoption in healthcare. He also notes that AR can have a detrimental effect on some people, stating that, “undesirable side effects such as equipment failure, fatigue, or motion sickness” were experienced in some trials.

More recently, efforts by companies such as Microsoft with Hololens and Google with Glass, have concentrated on the consumer market. Thus far, this has not proven particularly successful. Google withdrew from sale their Glass project in 2015 after poor sales, an immature product, and a backlash from the public concerned with potential privacy issues. This was later rebranded and targeted specific at the Enterprise market although developers continue to find unique healthcare applications. For example, R. Győrödi in 2015 demonstrated an acquaintance reminder solution that is able to store and recall photographs of people’s faces whilst using an algorithm to match them to an off-device database. Once matched, information about the individual can be presented to the wearer. Applications for this solution include patients with degenerative memory disorders such as Alzheimers, suffers of traumatic brain injuries, or just age-related memory loss. Another innovative application is TRAVEE by Voinea, again in 2015, which is a system designed to aid stroke survivors in their rehabilitation period. TRAVEE uses motion detection and a Head Mounted Display (HMD) to provide a virtual therapist avatar whose role is to guide the patient through a range of movements designed to improve mobility over time. There are several emergent devices and software already starting to appear, such as Microsoft HoloLens, Apple’s ARKit, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR. All of these systems are targeted at the consumer market where developers are beginning to create health-related applications.

Despite initial resistance to AR adoption the technology does have benefits that will eventually see their way into the healthcare environment. Still, there are a lot of issues to overcome first. Concerns remain around the current technological shortcomings such as battery life, medical device interoperability, and government legislation, but more importantly about the privacy of patient data. These issues are not insurmountable and based on the rapid adoption of technologies such as the smart phone and tablet in similar environments, AR may well provide an important research area.

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