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?