VR to teach languages, cure phobias and change experiences for medical professionals as much as for patients. Surgeons can practice difficult procedures on virtual patients
before ever making the first real slice. Scores of surgical
students can strap on headsets and observe and learn from
just about anywhere in the world. And bedridden patients
can escape the confines of dreary hospital recovery rooms
in the blink of an eye using VR technology.
These advances and more are brought to life courtesy of
a generation of digital natives and gamers who are com-
ing into their own in research and development, Sweeney
says. “There’s a great deal of buzz and excitement with this
exposure to the technology and how it hits so close to home
now,” says the die-hard gamer who is pushing to main-
stream the approach in research and development circles.
“There is a natural adoption of putting a headset on and
being completely immersed in a new design digital environ-
ment. I wanted to capture the usability of how this technol-
ogy is naturally accepted.”
Battelle is tapping VR for a number of projects, crafting
medical devices and procedures designed with end users
in mind from the beginning, says Dr. Amy Schwartz, an
industry thought leader and a cognitive psychologist on
Battelle’s Human Centric Design (HCD) team.
Paramount to the HCD team’s efforts, she says, is letting
designers and engineers use VR to gain an empathetic understanding of what a visually impaired, elderly patient with
diminished motor skills, for example, might experience when
trying to use that awkwardly designed insulin injector. This
approach also can help them understand the effects interruptions have on nurses dispensing medication—distractions
that sometimes can lead to errors. “Empathy is really a cornerstone of humancentric design,” Schwartz says.
Humancentric design pays off in other ways as well.
Patients who have positive experiences with medical
devices are more likely to use them properly, which is paramount in today’s environment of evidence- and outcomes-based medicine, she continues. “We need to design personal medical devices so they fit into people’s lives, not the
other way around. Medication adherence is complex, but
one simple thing is true: Medicine doesn’t work if people
don’t take it correctly,” Schwartz says.
That understanding becomes more profound when
researchers and designers become the patients, if even for
a short—and virtualized—period of time, Sweeney shares.
“That first-person perspective removes any ambiguity. It’s
taking the guesswork out of what this person has to experience,” he says.
The technique is a lot like the gaming Sweeney is used
to, but by tapping a cross section of designer experiences,
researchers can create an ideal medically based avatar to
test, evaluate and improve their concept devices well before
putting them in front of real users. “Most gamers play to
escape and become that superhuman who can jump higher
or fly or overcome obstacles—only in my version, I would
be a grandma,” he jests.
While the approach of using VR in this space is relatively
cutting-edge, Sweeney reveals, the graphics are not. “You’re
not really getting Pixar-quality, triple-A gaming experiences
right now,” he offers. The graphics technology is considered
antiquated by today’s standards. “You’re getting ’90s console
computer graphics. But it’s different now. Now you’re present
in the space.” So while the images might be pixilated throw-
backs to a 16-bit, 2-D graphics era, the experiences are not.
“You don’t need much,” Sweeney promises. “There’s no magic
formula to providing that spatial presence.”
VR not only enriches device testing but also saves time.
The technology makes rapid prototyping possible, Schwartz
offers. Imagine several surgeons all gathered in a virtual
surgical suite—tuning in from their offices, homes or wher-
ever is convenient—to test a new tool. “We can have the
surgeon holding this tool in the virtual world, and he says,
‘Really, I would like this to be lighter and have a longer
pointed front,’” Schwartz outlines. “Andrew then goes to his
computer and does whatever brilliant magic he does with
the software, and all of a sudden this thing the surgeon was
just talking about is in his hand.”
The days of waiting for a physical prototype or for a 3-D
printer to craft a revised tool could be over, Sweeney says.
The HCD team’s work is more than just avoiding errors—
it is putting people first, Schwartz affirms. Her passion for
helping others began at an early age. She is the daughter of a
physicist who worked for General Electric’s space program
in the 1960s. “My father helped put a man on the moon, lit-
erally,” she recalls. “When I was a kid, that was so unbeliev-
able and thrilling, to actually use your training to make an
impact like that on the world.”
Today her mission is to take device usability from good
to great with VR’s help. “We must incorporate emotional,
social and cultural factors to create great design. Why can’t
medical devices include small moments of delight like con-
sumer products do?” Schwartz asks.
That will take a shift in the widely held view that medical
devices are rarely fun. Sweeney wonders if designers could
tweak that paradigm a bit. “Often, when you’re thinking
about a child who has to wear an insulin pump to his ele-
mentary school, maybe that pump doesn’t have to look like
a medical device,” he offers. “Maybe it can look no different
than the cellphone in your pocket.”
That is the empathy factor Schwartz speaks of: designing
a device from a child’s use perspective.
When the tidal wave of hype over VR subsides, the HCD
team needs to grasp its value and obtain an “understanding
of when it’s appropriate and when it’s not” to use, Sweeney
surmises. “Are we reducing time? Are we getting to solu-
tions faster? Are we making life better?”
Those just might be superhero questions.
contact: Sandra Jontz, email@example.com