Dr. Michael Schlitt, Neurosurgeon, Neurosurgery, Seattle

Virtual Reality and Surgery

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August saw the first ever “virtual reality (VR) operation” being conducted as part of research into how the Oculus Rift headset could benefit surgical training.  I recently came across an article that discusses the merging of surgery and gaming technology.  This March, Facebook acquired the startup Oculus VR, the developers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, for $2 billion.  The gaming world had mixed feelings about this purchase, as they were suspicious as to what a tech giant like Facebook was planning on doing with what many people consider to be the next major evolution in gaming.

Dr. Michael Schlitt Oculus Rift

The Rift, shown here, could be used to train surgeons.

Immediately after the takeover was announced, Markus Persson, known for creating Minecraft, cancelled a deal that would have brought Minecraft to the Rift.  With Mark Zuckerberg acquiring the Rift, it seemed like the focus of the device was no longer going to be gaming, as Zuckerberg planned on using for other purposes.  However, those who were angry that the Rift was being used for purposes other than gaming didn’t realize that such a device could be used for a variety of purposes, possibly even health care.  Groups have already started experimenting with the technology in the medical field.  Last month, scientists, videographers and surgeons collaborated on the first “Oculus Rift operation”.  The project was originally conceived by French engineer and VR enthusiast Rémi Rousseau.  Rousseau partnered with the medical research fundraising body MOVEO Foundation to demonstrate what role the Oculus Rift could play as a training aid for surgeons.

According to Rousseau, using VR for training purposes is nothing new, as the military has been using virtual reality-simulated environments in training for over 35 years.  The advantages that come from being able to train novice personnel in a low-to-no-risk simulated environment is undeniable.  The technology has yet to catch on due to money, but with such tech giants as Apple, Android, Windows and Linux backing it, VR could soon be available to consumers.  The Rift, however, wouldn’t be a medical device, but if it’s widely adopted, it could be a valuable tool for physicians.  In Rousseau’s experiment, two synchronized GoPro cameras were mounted onto the head of surgeon Dr. Thomas Gregory as he was performing a total hip replacement.  The idea here was to capture hi-res 3D footage of the operation from the perspective of the surgeon.  When this was viewed back through the headset of the Rift, the viewer has the feeling of being in the surgeon’s body, watching the procedure through their eyes.

When you’re a training surgeon, you always have a task to do during the surgery, and therefore it becomes difficult to see what the main surgeon is actually doing.  Being able to witness a surgery through the perspective of the surgeon is extremely useful, and the Rift would allow the user to replay the surgery in detail, pause, fast forward or rewind.  It can also be a great way to share and learn new technologies among surgeons.  Since the current iteration of the Rift costs $350, while radiology screens cost over $15,000, Rousseau suggests that if the resolution of the Rift is improved, then it could even be a viable radiological interpretation tool.


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