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Virtual and augmented reality open new paths in the health sector (from surgery to education!)

06 October 2020

Article by Pedro Martins and José Rodrigues, researchers at INEGI in the field of Biomechanics and Health.


Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are interface technologies between the user and operating systems that use computers to create digital scenarios, and use sensors that facilitate interaction. At INEGI, several applications in these fields are being developed, mainly in the health field.

The technological advances achieved in the last decade in the field of AR and VR are significant, and have been redefining the limits of their application, particularly in the health area.

With regard to technology, the health sector has always been one of the first to embrace the latest innovations, and technologies for digital transformation of reality are no exception. The constant search for new and better diagnostic and therapy solutions drives the integration of these tools, and as the technology matures and becomes more accessible and easy to use, the barriers to its use disappear.

Augmented reality and virtual reality, despite going hand in hand, are two different technologies. Augmented reality superimposes elements or virtual information on surfaces or objects existing in the real physical world. Virtual reality, on the other hand, consists of an artificial simulation of a computer generated environment or situation.

This paradigm shift has had a considerable impact on the activity of health professionals, with benefits in terms of diagnosis, access to health care, education, and even cost reduction. Whether for the surgeon who can view the patient's internal organs in 3D before surgery, or for the medical student who can practice in a simulated environment without the risks of real life, AR and VR are becoming indispensable tools.

Simulation facilitates diagnosis and prevents errors in medicine

The scenarios described here are no longer mere hypotheses or conjectures, but reality, which takes the form of tools and applications, some of which were developed at INEGI. Our researchers, knowing the potential of the intersection between biomechanics and computing, have been exploring new opportunities created by this transformation, leveraging the potential of AR and VR in the health field.

It is noteworthy, for example, the development of a virtual doctor's office that allows the observation and interaction with simulations of anatomical models in a virtual environment. The application focuses on clinical cases of pathologies of the male sphincter-urinary complex, but is adaptable to any system or organ, and its pathologies.

The solution adds value, both for clinical application and for pedagogical purposes, as it allows to interactively explore the elements of the virtual environment in a context of practical or theoretical-practical learning.

The application of virtual reality, however, goes beyond these contexts, and may also have a role in the sphere of treatment and rehabilitation. An example of this is the application PeViC ("Pedaling in a Virtual City"), developed at INEGI, and which has the main objective of being used in occupational therapy, at home, in rehabilitation centers, day centers or nursing homes. The interaction with the virtual environment, where the user rides a bicycle through the virtual city, not only motivates him to perform the exercises, but also gathers information about the patient's physical activity, which is useful for therapists who accompany the treatment.

Digital world and real world merge thanks to technology

In the field of augmented reality, a tool developed to assist research on Alzheimer's disease stands out. This device has two high-definition screens that reflect images in parabolic lenses so that one can view and interact with three-dimensional models of the brain, with information superimposed on the thickness variations obtained by magnetic resonance.

These are just a few examples of the work we have been doing and the various lines of research we are exploring. In the course of this work, we had the opportunity to contact health professionals from various areas and specialties, and we observed an enormous openness, and even urgency for new technological solutions.

Virtual and augmented reality technologies promise a future in which it will be easier to collect, analyze and interact with medical information, reducing the gap between the accessible and the inaccessible in the physical world or allowing a distant clinic to boost interaction between the patient and the doctor. Continuous technological innovation is the key, and cooperation between health professionals and researchers is undoubtedly essential for the advancement of these emerging technologies.