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 treating PTSD 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.”
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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 recently slashed prices, too, throwing in freebies, and doing just about anything to get VR gadgets off the shelf and into the hands of everyday people.
By Jennifer Jolly | USA Today
Illustration Credit: Roddy Blelloch/USA Today