Virtual & Augmented Reality in Veterinary Education

[This is a guest blog post I wrote for the RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) ViVet Expert Blog page. The original post can be viewed here.]
Anyone who has watched films such as The Matrix or the more recent Spielberg offering, Ready Player One, will be familiar with the idea of virtual reality and the potential of it to transform not only entertainment but many other aspects of our lives, including work and education.
Spatial computing, which incorporates both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – collectively referred to as Mixed Realty (MR) – is rapidly moving from the realms of science fiction into fact, providing those in healthcare with a range of exciting and interesting new tools. Whilst there are a number of case examples of MR being employed within the human medical sector, it’s use remains in it’s infancy within the veterinary sector, although I see that changing over the next few years.
According to recent survey data the level of enthusiasm for spatial computing as a potentially useful tool within the veterinary profession is high even though the level of practical experience with such technology remains low. Whilst VR has been around for decades it is only in recent years that the technology has advanced to levels that now enable a range of extremely useful applications and is gaining wider adoption as opposed to simply being the preserve of gamers and academics. Much of this drive in adoption has come from the advances in mobile technology. One can easily experience the magic of VR using a phone-based headset like the Samsung GearVR or engage with AR through their Apple iPhone, whether it be chasing after Pokemon or playing with dinosaurs as they run across a tabletop. The barriers to entry of truly high-spec VR are rapidly falling and it will soon be possible to experience full six-degrees-of-freedom VR, allowing users to directly engage and interact with a virtual world, without having to break the bank by buying expensive gaming equipment. Truly untethered, mobile headsets, such as those in development by companies like Oculus, will, I am certain, herald a wave of mass adoption of VR. As soon as more people get to try spatial computing for themselves the applications will start to be imagined and created, including many that will change how we, as veterinarians, train, educate ourselves and clients, and manage our professional lives.
I recently spoke at an industry conference in the US on VR in Veterinary, with education and training the most obvious areas for application at present. Human surgeons are already able to practice certain skills in VR, using programs like OssoVR, and the evidence supports the view that immersive systems that provide practical training scenarios do translate into effective learning. The airline industry has used VR systems to train pilots for years. Why not use the same principles to ensure that our surgeons, both of humans and animals, learn, practice and refine key skills in a safe, repercussion-free environment before they apply those same skills to real-life patients. If I had been able to graduate from vet school having carried out hundreds of (virtual) bitch spays – a feat that would simply not have been possible in the real world – even if the virtual scenarios only modelled very specific aspects of the experience, then I think my confidence as a new graduate and my progression as a clinical practitioner would have been significantly greater. Practical CPD in the future is highly unlikely to involve groups of people huddling round a single-use physical model or hard-to-source cadaver but rather take place in the infinite bounds of the digital environment, where specific training scenarios are but a virtual menu selection away and there is no limit to the ‘practice models’ available.
We are, I believe at the very start of this spatial computing journey in the veterinary profession, with many questions yet to be both asked and answered. I, as with many others, look forward to the day when donning a pair of smart glasses or a VR headset will be seen as a normal part of our professional experience.
How do you envisage us learning in the future? Can you imagine using Virtual or Augmented Reality to learn new skills or improve existing ones?

Diving into VR

(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )

With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!

 

Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.

 

Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.

 

In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.

 

One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.