A Cutting-Edge VR Experience

The future of surgical training

For some time, virtual reality (VR) has been touted as a technology with the potential to make a huge impact on training and education. For anyone who has tried experiences such as a VR journey into space (see Where No Man Has Gone Before), the power of the technology is clear in its ability to take users to locations they’ve never been before. Similarly, in training and development, VR can be used to recreate multiple scenarios, allowing people to learn in immersive 360-degree environments.

Several VR experiences I’ve tried recently have convinced me that this technology is moving to a whole new level. A great example is FundamentalVR, a London-based technology and data insight business that has built a software-as-a-service platform called Fundamental Surgery. This is designed to give healthcare professionals around the globe low-cost access to authentic surgical simulations. The platform has been developed by a team of surgical and technology experts and tested by over 500 surgeons.

Fundamental Surgery combines VR with cutting-edge haptic technology, which creates a sense of touch, to offer a near-lifelike surgical experience for trainees and qualified surgeons. The blend of VR and haptic technology allows users to experience visuals, sounds and physical feedback as they would during a real surgical procedure. The physical feedback in particular is a really powerful part of the platform; rather than offering a point-and-click experience, it enables users to feel resistance depending on what action they’re performing, thanks to “haptic arm” Touch controllers from 3D Systems.

As an example, this means that a surgeon practising a hip replacement will be able to feel varying levels of resistance throughout the virtual operation — from marking where a patient is to be operated on, to cutting through skin and bone. This allows a trainee to become familiar with procedures before carrying them out on a real person. This brings clear benefits such as greater confidence for trainee surgeons when operating live for the first time.

Throughout the procedure, Fundamental Surgery tracks steadiness of hand and “surgical sight gaze” (the percentage of time a surgeon spends looking closely at the operation throughout), which is measured using eye-tracking technology. It also includes questions before and after an operation to test the knowledge of the surgeon. These measures are tremendously useful in assessing surgeon competency, and FundamentalVR suggests that this is a way to objectively benchmark surgeons in a more accurate way than ever before. The platform also uses an interactive dashboard, which could be extremely valuable in a training scenario to easily assess the competencies of a group.

To put this cutting-edge technology to the test, I recently visited FundamentalVR’s London headquarters and tried the surgery experience — I was thoroughly impressed by it. Powered by the HTC Vive Pro, the experience provided a realistic operating theatre setting with a customizable level of guidance, so that newer users can ask for support and more advanced users can toggle this feature off. The number of procedures available to work through is limited at present, but it’s expected to grow over time. The platform behind the VR experience is extensive and will provide useful insights in scenarios such as training and education for a large number of surgeons.

I believe the potential of the Fundamental Surgery platform — and other similar developments such as the work Microsoft has been doing in the healthcare sector with HoloLens — is enormous. The fact that surgeons can train in a controlled virtual environment could bring huge benefits over training on cadavers, which are expensive, difficult to transport, are only usable once, and clearly do not replicate a living human body.

For universities and hospitals that provide training to surgeons, the financial payback could be a game-changer. What’s more, the experience is designed to be scalable; it simply needs a suitable PC and VR headset to use with the haptic arms and Fundamental Surgery licence. Increasing the number of devices and licences to demand is straightforward. Customized enterprise solutions are also available for medical device and pharmaceutical companies. This has the potential to speed up the development of new medical tools and procedures.

Use of VR in education has been promising so far, and this focus on surgery could have even greater value. Medical errors are thought to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the US alone each year and there are billions of people around the world who don’t have access to safe surgery because of a lack of trained surgeons. The idea that accredited training could be available through a global digital platform is exciting and could massively improve access to safe medical procedures worldwide.