Immersive Health: Are we ready?

That's the question that I've been reflecting upon over the last 12 months. Some of you may have noticed that in 2016, there is much more news, discussion and excitement with regard to Virtual Reality (VR) technology. Every other day there is some new announcement, and more and more people are believing that this could play a greater role in our future. Google has recently extended its foray into mobile VR beyond their Cardboard initiative with the announcement of their new Daydream platform. VR itself has been around for a while now, and I remember reading about the concept of VR when I took my first Computer Science class 29 years ago! 

Life is in 360, so why shouldn't our experiences be in 360 too? What really caught my attention in 2015 was a tweet by Susannah Fox when she was at TED 2015 after she had watched Chris Milk's talk "How Virtual Reality can create the ultimate empathy machine" and reading how it had impressed her. This really piqued my curiosity with respect to VR and its applications, as when we think of VR, we often associate it with computer games simply for entertainment. I was skeptical that putting on a VR headset could generate empathy for others. In his TED talk, Milk showed the 'Clouds over Sidra' VR experience he created, and after viewing it in VR, I was very surprised at how it made me feel. 

I was also inspired when attending the Body Computing Conference last autumn at USC, where Dr Leslie Saxon announced their new Virtual Care Clinic as well as announcing the winners of their VR Medical Hackathon. In fact, USC's Institute for Creative Technologies is one of the original pioneers when it comes to VR in healthcare as you can see in this short video.

In my quest to understand the future, I started to purchase many of these new devices as soon as they came onto the market. I believe it's important to try new hardware and software for more than a day or two in order to determine what it's like to live with the technology. I purchased a Samsung Gear VR, and ended up using it to demo VR experiences at the world's 1st Pop-Up Museum of Happiness in London at the start of 2016. I offered attendees the chance to experience guided meditation at the beach, snowboarding or diving in the ocean with the whales.

With Sam Cookney, we helped people attending the pop up Museum of Happiness in London, experience Virtual Reality. This man tried a 360 video using a Samsung Gear VR, which took him on a helicopter ride in the mountains, followed by snowboarding Hear his immediate reaction to the experience.

It was fascinating to see the range of reactions to the Gear VR, some thought it was terrible, and others enjoyed meditating on the beach so much, they didn't want to take the headset off and come back to the real world. Seeing some people smiling and laughing after a few minutes with a headset with a smartphone inside of it compelled me to keep exploring the potential uses of this technology. For example, given aging populations, how do we immerse ourselves in the world of someone aged 85, who lives alone and has multiple long term conditions? In Australia, a Virtual Dementia Experience has been developed, which "is an immersive, interactive virtual reality experience that invades the senses and takes people into the world of a person living with dementia, simulating thoughts, fears and challenges." That's already here today, so what might we do in the future?

It's not just about consuming VR content but creating it too. It's now possible to buy a 360 camera, record your own 360 video, and upload it to YouTube & Facebook which both support 360 videos. You can then share the video, and whoever views it can watch it on their computer, their smartphone or even using a VR headset. Personally, I suggest using a smartphone whilst connected to wifi or a VR headset if you have access to one. Dr Shafi Ahmed recently made history by performing a cancer surgery in London, live streamed using 360 cameras located in the operating theatre, which allowed people around the globe to watch the surgery up close and personal in Virtual Reality. 

Sometimes, there are unexpected findings associated with the use of emerging technology such as a 360 camera. Many of us might dismiss it as a gimmick for every day use. We can't assume how this tech will or will not impact lives. We often just have to get out there and try something new, even if we don't know what to expect. Our sense of wonder and curiosity takes us towards new horizons. I was delighted to read Molly Watt's post on how using a 360 camera has helped her see the world differently by taking 360 images, despite losing her peripheral vision a few years ago. If you haven't done so already, do read my last post which was an interview with Molly on how she is putting Usher Syndrome on the map. If you ask me for a list of the top 10 people that influence my thinking about the future of technology, Molly would definitely be in that list. I firmly believe that citizens should have the freedom to find or even make their own solutions. Couple that mindset with advances in technology available to consumers, and we are heading for a world where our children will attend school and assume that 'invention literacy' was always part of the curriculum. 

This year, I've used telemedicine services in the UK where I had a video call with a doctor using my tablet. Will my telemedicine visit with the doctor in 2020 be in Virtual Reality? What if the doctor could visit me virtually in my own home, and by seeing my home environment in 360 degrees, be able to pick up social and environmental cues that could help them make a more accurate diagnosis? Or what if taking a selfie with a 360 camera allowed researchers looking at smoking cessation programs to understand smoking triggers in someone's social and physical environment with one 360 image? That's a core element of a pitch from a team I was part of at a recent Cancer Research UK Innovation Workshop that led to us winning an award for funding to conduct a pilot study. The 360 image you see embedded below was taken moments after we won. You can move around the entire image and immerse yourself in that moment, much more than a regular image. 

Our team just got awarded funding at @crukresearch #innovation workshop #cancerprevention - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

I recently gave a talk at Health 2.0 Amsterdam, called 'Immersive Health: Are we ready?' and I used my Ricoh Theta S 360 camera to record my talk. The resolution of the video could be better, which is why I've also gone out and also purchased 4K 360 cameras such as the Insta360 and the Kodak PixPro SP360. Our existing infrastructure is usually not quite ready to cope with these new technologies. For example, I tried embedding the 360 video in this post, but it didn't display as a 360 video, just a regular one. Hence, I had to insert links to my 360 videos throughout this post, which require you to click on, and then it launches YouTube where you can have the full 360 video experience. Now, when you watch the 360 video of my talk in Amsterdam on your phone, move the phone around and you'll change the position of the video! 

2016 has also seen the launch of two long awaited VR headsets, one called the Oculus Rift and the other is the HTC Vive. These are the most advanced products consumers can buy today, and I've bought both of them. Whilst they deliver an immersive experience that is unparalleled by any other technology available to consumers, there are a few drawbacks. The first of which is price. I paid almost £800 for the HTC Vive, and I needed to buy a rather high end gaming PC to use it, which was another £1,400. The Oculus Rift was cheaper at £529, and I've opted to get a VR ready laptop for use with the Rift, which is an eye watering £2,200. So, this level of VR tech is not affordable to the masses yet, but neither were the original mobile phones when they were first launched.

You may wonder, when it comes to making us healthier and happier, where is the value in these expensive VR systems? Well, hospitals are starting to experiment with these advanced products. For example, C.S Mott. Children's hospital in the USA, has been using the Oculus Rift with sick children who were stuck in a hospital ward for a length of time.

There is a compelling read on Reddit, entitled "Oculus Rift saved my sanity while stuck in the hospital, Thanks!" This story was written by a patient in the USA, who upon facing being stuck on the top floor of the hospital for treatment decided to bring in his own system to the hospital. The part that stood out to me the most is "All from my top floor prison of a floor I couldn't leave. This was my getaway, for the rest of the stay. Teleporting me away from the sterile, dry and bland existence that was my hospital room. I was playing my flight simulators and space simulators, racing cars and playing FPS. Life was good again." Granted, this isn't a clinical trial, but it's a positive outcome, their own success story, and a brilliant example of patients as innovators. 

Researchers have been testing VR for some time now, most of the proven use cases seem to be with exposure therapy. For example, 12 years ago, this study looked at the use of VR and computer games as exposure therapy for people with a fear of driving after a car accident. In this study from 16 years ago, researchers looked at the use of VR to overcome fear of flying. What else could we achieve now given the VR technology has evolved and we now have an array of VR products from cheap to expensive, available in the consumer market? There is also the expected array of hype with VR that we have to navigate, just like the hype that still surrounds wearables, big data and AI etc. Finding the signal within the noise won't be easy. We can't just jump into working with this technology because it's new and shiny, we all have to operate with finite resources, no matter how big an organisation we work in.

There are so many questions to answer before we can even begin to explore this arena. What can VR replace or augment? What can we do with VR that we never thought was possible before? Will we be prescribed a VR experience by our doctor alongside our medication so we can better understand the benefits of adhering to our treatment plan? What does the ongoing refinement of VR tech mean for medical education? What are the long term risks of using these headsets for extended periods of time? Is the use of VR going to isolate us or immerse us? Who can actually afford to use VR?

That's why I decided to launch my VR for Health & Social Care workshop in London. Since I've invested in many of the latest devices, tested them myself, have been reviewing the scientific literature to understand what's been studied so far, researched future trends in VR and thought of how they might be used across Health & Social Care, why not blend that all together into an interactive learning experience for people who want to be able to make informed decisions about VR. These devices whether they be the headsets or the cameras are best experienced with your own eyes. In my workshop, one of the things you'll be learning is how to take take, process and upload 360 videos, and then viewing the content you create, in Virtual Reality! Unlocking creativity is key, and I really do believe that the creative industries will have a much larger role to play when it comes to improving our health in the future. There is a deficit of imagination when it comes to new ideas and inventions today, and collectively we must be bolder in imagining the world we want to create for our children, and our grandchildren. 

For some of you, VR may turn out to be something you want to utilise immediately, for others it may still have too many limitations to be of value until the technology and related services evolve. To that end, I've worked with experts such as Dr Keith Grimes for clinical input and Shirley Ayres for her depth of experience in the social sector, when designing the workshop to ensure that you'll walk away with knowledge that you can apply immediately in your own work. 

The workshops are 4 hours in duration, and are held on selected Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in London during June and July. I've deliberately limited each workshop to 4 attendees, as I want to maximise the learning opportunity for each of you. I've been to conferences where there are long lines just to try out the latest VR systems for a couple of minutes, and if you have an unexpected reaction to VR, you're in a public place where everyone to see. 

The workshop has the same content, experience and devices across the 23 dates, so you can simply choose a date that's convenient for you. I've already received requests to run the workshops in other parts of the UK, if that's something you'd like, please contact me to discuss.

You can read more about the workshop and book your ticket here

Finally, I've made another 360 video when I was preparing for the workshop yesterday at the venue. You can take a look around the classroom as well as see the devices you'll be getting to use during the workshop. 

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the individuals or organisations mentioned above, apart from Dr Keith Grimes and Shirley Ayres who I have hired to consult on the design of my workshop]

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