I knew that virtual reality was about more than just video games, but I never expected to wear an Oculus Rift to watch a surgeon lancing some chap's bowels open.
At London's Wearable Technology Show last week, a lot was made of wearables' and VR's potential for medical purposes, from fitness programs to monitoring of brain activity. But "The Virtual Surgeon," an attempt to plunge users into a 360-degree VR operating theatre, was the most in-your-face.
The version I tried at the show was just an "observer" edition: through my Oculus I could clearly see and hear everything happening around the operating table, but I couldn't take part in the cutting and clamping. Yet the experience—the gory tissues, a viscid portion of the colon about to be cut off, the team of scrubs bustling and acting, unsurprisingly, with surgical precision—was extremely vivid. I was in fact immersed in a real-life colectomy that had been captured on a 360-degree camera by the Virtual Surgeon team.
Dr. Shafi Ahmed, cofounder of the developing company Medical Realities and a surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, explained to me that the next two steps comprise adding CGI elements to filmed operations to allow users to finally brandish their own scalpels on the bodies, and devising a system to make the virtual patients feel to the touch like actual bodies
"The technology for both of these innovations are already there, so I think that by the end of the year, everything will be ready," he said.
The main use for The Virtual Surgeon wouldn't be grossing squeamish reporters out, but training medical students in key disciplines such as surgery and anatomy. The traditional way to do this is to use cadavers: people who decided to give their corpses to science after death. But cadavers are becoming increasingly scarce.
"We can't get enough cadavers," Ahmed said. "First of all because medicine students are increasing, and this brings up demand. Also, today more people want to be cremated. And, in general, there are more controls."
"More controls" is a gentle way of saying that, while in the past unclaimed bodies of homeless or unidentified people would likely end up in medical schools, more recent legislation (in the UK, it was the 2004 Human Tissue Act) has established that no cadavers can be used unless their former owners have expressly given their consent. This has translated to a marked decline of cadavers in many parts of the world.
While the UK seems to still fare relatively well, other countries are struggling to teach their medical students how a human body is actually put together. In an analysis piece last year, The Economist wrote of "regional [cadavers] shortages" in America and "acute shortages" in Africa and Asia.
That's why technology is stepping in to replace dead bodies. In India, students are learning the fundamentals on human-like gelatin dummies; surgery-based computer software and anatomical simulators are mushrooming. Now, with Medical Realities, VR is jumping into the picture.
"Of course there will always be cadaver fans."
"In some cases, VR could be better than a real cadaver—after a while, cadavers decay and become difficult to use," Ahmed said. "And VR is cheaper: cadaver-storage is expensive. Here, you would just need to buy the software."
Some doctors would take issue with this idea. In a recent piece on the Guardian, University of Cambridge anatomy professor Michelle Spear commented skeptically on the fact that students in Plymouth are no longer practising on real cadavers. "I wouldn't take my car to a mechanic who had only read a Haynes manual and worked on a simulated engine," she was quoted saying.
Doctor Ahmed has a more nuanced view of the matter. "I don't see VR or other simulators as total substitutes for the real thing, but more as complementary tools," he said. "Of course there will always be cadaver fans. I myself am a great fan of cadavers."