When people think of virtual and augmented reality as well as other immersive media technologies, many focus on the entertainment aspect, but these tools have become an asset in medical care.
In May, the University of Maryland School of Medicine announced a partnership with the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Michigan to create the Center for Medical Innovations in Extended Reality (MIXR). Established through $5 million from the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers program, the center aims to accelerate the development of these technologies to use in clinical trials and eventually more broadly in medical care.
Companies like Microsoft, Meta, Google and others will also be providing funding and expertise to the team to develop, test and certify these technologies to use in the medical field.
“Virtual reality has many uses in a health care setting,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean and professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences and the MIXR lead-site principal investigator. “For training, we’ve already done studies that show people can retain information better—nearly 9% better—than if they were to view the same information on a 2-D desktop screen.”
Staff has also developed virtual reality training prototypes for specialized surgical techniques like an emergency fasciotomy where the fascia is cut to relieve tension or pressure to treat the resulting loss of circulation to an area of tissue or muscle.
For augmented reality, the team has developed a point-of-care ultrasound prototype that displays information directly on the patient so the physician does not have to keep looking away to a monitor.
“These examples are just the beginning,” notes Varshney. “With the added momentum and synergy that our new center will bring — including working with federal regulatory experts to bring new devices and technologies to clinical settings more quickly — we anticipate a time in the not-too-distant future when immersive headsets will be just as commonplace in a hospital setting as a stethoscope.”
Officials note MIXR is needed because of the rapid movement in the private sector to advance new immersive technologies used for gaming, entertainment, education and training. This has filtered down to scientists and physicians using these same visualization tools in a clinical setting or for advanced medical training.
“We believe our new center will serve as a focal point for industry to collaborate — at the highest level — with academia and health care professionals to build, test and certify new devices that can greatly improve patient care and medical training,” Varshney said.
In 2017, Varshney along with Dr. Sarah Murthi launched the initial work with the Maryland Blended Reality Center (MBRC).
“It has been tremendously exciting and rewarding to work with Dr. Sarah Murthi and her colleagues in Baltimore,” he said. “They represent the very best in emergency medicine. Now, with added participation from technology leaders like Google, Microsoft and others, we believe we’ve developed a critical mass to move our ideas forward quickly and efficiently. The common theme of using technology to improve patient outcomes has been driving our efforts from the start. This is particularly satisfying for me as a computer scientist.”
MBRC will continue to work on other immersive projects that are not directly related to medicine and health care including implicit bias training and using immersive environments to train foreign language professionals at a very high level. They have also collaborated with artists and performers to bring new ideas in classical music and opera to the stage.
“So, while some of the new activities of MIXR may overlap with our work in MBRC, we see them as separate, yet complementary, entities,” Varshney said.
Some of the new activities that MIXR staff are exploring have not yet been used in a medical setting to a great extent. Murthi is working on helping patients cope with physical and emotional trauma through immersion in another world with a focus on quadriplegic patients who are hospitalized with acute spinal cord injury. Another collaborator, Dr. Luana Colloca, is a physician scientist using immersive technologies to reduce the need for addictive opioid pain medications.
Varshney and his UM colleagues are in the process of finalizing a HoloCamera studio featuring more than 300 immersive cameras fused together to create a 3-D visualization technology images to help train health care providers performing difficult medical procedures.
“We are in the final stages of addressing technical challenges that have arisen in our fusing together 300 immersive cameras,” he said. “The system works but we need it to work seamlessly for what we have in mind — high-end training for emergency medical procedures. We anticipate working with our partners in Baltimore on user-study training scenarios within the next six months.”
The collaborators have planned a three-day kickoff in College Park in October to bring all the MIXR partners together including scientists, physicians, private technology firms, and federal regulatory experts. The event is designed to brainstorm their agenda for the immediate future and the next five years. “We are certainly excited for what is yet to come,” Varshney said.