The use of augmented reality (AR) in health care is certainly not new. However, products featuring AR have undergone extensive developments in recent years and have now entered the consumer and business sphere in an unprecedented magnitude.
HealthTech Women defines AR as computer-generated images that are superimposed onto a real world object with the aim of enhancing its qualities. Google’s project Glass provided people with face computers, stirred the public opinion and raised speculations about future advances of digital technologies.
In the health-care industry, these devices can improve medical procedures and patient care, and serve as diagnostic, training and treatment tools.
See for yourself
The most obvious starting point for AR devices is our vision. These gadgets can help people “see” things in a novel and original way and can even transcend the obstacles of the physical world. An illustrative example of AR technology put into use with those who can benefit from it most is OrCam. OrCam assists people who are visually impaired – it recognizes text and objects and speaks to the user through a bone-conduction earpiece about what it sees. This device can read a novel to wearers or help them choose from a menu when out for a meal with friends, increasing independence and participation.
In hospital settings, AR now routinely assists with small and complex surgeries, affording better precision and efficiency. Eyes-on Glass is a product that provides clinicians with a wearable imaging technology that can penetrate the skin and produces clear images of the patient’s blood vessels.
This allows for a quick and easy location of the best veins and also generates real-time, anatomically correct vascular images. The use of glasses does not reduce the patient-doctor interaction as everything can be performed hands-free with maximum eye contact maintained throughout.
Virtual reality for stress release
AR has also been successfully implemented in some areas of mental health. Virtual reality exposure therapy is now being used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) across the U.S. at health facilities for war veterans. It has previously been demonstrated that repeated exposure to stressful stimuli you know from the past (e.g. a war zone) can present a part of a guided therapy program and can restore shattered confidence. While with a therapist and in a safe environment, a patient can relive the toxic moment, get immersed in it and release the attached stress. This technique has also been used with sexual-assault and car-crash survivors.
People with mental health problems often live a socially isolated life and have difficulty relaying the experiences of their distorted realities. Health technology can help improve the understanding of the world a mental health patient lives in by simulating what the condition might feel like. Viscira developed an opportunity for others to experience the impact of schizophrenia by simply putting on the Oculus Rift goggles.
The device immerses a health-care professional, family member or other user in a 3D environment that resembles that of a patient suffering from schizophrenia, complete with visual and auditory inputs. Hopefully, the experience can increase the person’s empathy for mental health patients.
What does the future hold?
Cinematography has already provided us with unsettling images of an imaginary future in which we will all be wearing implantable devices that will record our lives, and even allow us to play back recorded events. Helen Papagiannis, an augmented reality consultant and researcher, points out that while there is a possibly dark side to almost everything, there is also a huge positive potential AR holds for human existence. Recording reality and being able to access past events could for example help patients with memory problems and Alzheimer’s live a better and safer life.