It is often thought that virtual reality is a recent technological breakthrough, yet it is a concept that is more than half a century old. Augmented reality, which can be seen as a specific declination of virtual reality, is becoming established throughout the medical sector, particularly in surgery, but not only.
Oe often think of virtual reality as a recent technological breakthrough, yet it is a concept that is more than half a century old. As early as 1955, Morton Heilig imagined a total cinema, in which all the senses of the viewer would be simultaneously solicited, and in 1962 Heilig invented the first immersive cinema: the SENSORAMA, which was equipped with fans and vibrating seats that were supposed to be able to make all the scenes in the film physically feel in a very realistic way.
A few years later, in 1968, the first virtual reality helmet, known as the Sword of Damocles, was invented by Ivan Sutherland and Daniel Vickers. In 1977, the first virtual gloves, the "Datagloves", appeared. But it was not until 1985 that the term "virtual reality" was first used by Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL Research, to designate a "realistic", three-dimensional, real-time, immersive representation space.
Since then, virtual reality and then "augmented" reality have gradually imposed themselves in all fields of activity, whether in industry, health, defence, leisure or transport.
A few weeks ago, as part of an exhibition dedicated to the industry of the future, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Sanofi presented a virtual reality training module for its operators. In this training, the agents, equipped with an HTC VivPro helmet, can familiarize themselves with their future production tool on a factory before it is built.
The IT giant Microsoft also intends to become one of the world leaders in this booming market of virtual reality. A few weeks ago it launched a new tool for 3D creation and prototyping in virtual reality. The software, called Modelis particularly powerful and versatile and can recreate the journey of a motorist in a large city, a customer in a supermarket, or a tourist in a museum. This software Model has been so successful that the company has decided to continue to develop it and open it to the public. Microsoft intends to rapidly develop it based on the feedback it receives from users.
Augmented reality, which can be seen as a specific declination of virtual reality, is also becoming established throughout the medical sector, particularly in surgery. At the University of Pisa (Italy), for example, researchers are developing a new virtual navigation tool designed to guide the surgeon's hands during an operation by providing him with all the information he may need in real time. Tried out in maxillofacial surgery at the University Hospital of Bologna, this revolutionary tool makes it possible to superimpose particularly useful data and information in the surgeon's visual field on demand. As Giovanni Badiali, the maxillofacial surgeon involved in this experiment, points out, "Being able to directly visualize, by looking at the patient, the useful indications to put this element in a new position, while guaranteeing symmetry, is an invaluable aid".
This system of "augmented surgery" not only considerably improves the precision of surgical procedures, but also allows complex operations to be performed much faster, reducing post-operative risks while significantly improving the surgeon's working comfort.
At the Simone Veil Hospital in Eaubonne-Montmorency, certain patients undergoing painful care can benefit from a virtual reality mask designed to reduce the consumption of analgesics or anesthetics. These masks, developed after eight years of research by Bliss Laboratories, can offer the patient a choice of three virtual environments: images of meadows, with animals, images of the universe, with space, the planets, or the underwater world. This very realistic immersion in these virtual worlds considerably reduces the stress and pain experienced by patients and thus improves their living comfort.
In the rehabilitation services of the Rangueil Hospital (CHU of Toulouse), some stroke patients benefit from rehabilitation sessions for the executive functions of their brain based on immersions in virtual environments with the help of a specific helmet. For 20 minutes, these patients, whose brain function has been severely disrupted by stroke, will move around in apartments, shops and virtual streets. They will then have to carry out and repeat in the right order a number of gestures of daily life, which will contribute to a better functional recovery and a "rewiring" of their brain, with certain intact areas gradually replacing the damaged regions. Of course, this tool, which is flexible and programmable, can be adapted to each patient, so as to optimise their rehabilitation and recovery process.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the administrative authority responsible for authorizing the marketing of new drugs and medical tools, gave the green light last September to use the OpenSight tool for training surgeons.
OpenSight uses the Microsoft Hololens headset and allows interactively superimposing 2D or 3D images on the patient's anatomy to help surgeons prepare for an operation. With this extremely powerful tool, surgeons can safely repeat very complex procedures and simulate unexpected problems, significantly reducing the risk of complications during actual surgery.
Another example of a virtual reality application that could soon radically change the lives of visually impaired people is the Cognitive Augmented Reality Assistant (CARA), which is used with Microsoft HoloLens headsets to help visually impaired people to see and hear. blind to communicate with objects.
CARA uses computer vision to identify objects in the blind person's environment. By pronouncing their names, users can find out where they are in a room. For example, the closer they are to a door or a chair, the higher the voice of the object.
This tool can be used in several modes. It can allow helmets to name the objects they have used, or make a complete list of the objects present in a room thanks to HoloLens. The tool can even guide a person to the object they want to use.
Medical and biological research has also seized upon virtual reality to rapidly design and develop therapeutic molecules. In the United States, the Nanome company offers a virtual reality tool for visualizing, designing and manipulating very diverse and complex molecular structures.
A few months ago, a British team from the University of Bristol led by David Glowacki created a virtual environment to simulate 3D molecular structures. Users, who wear virtual reality helmets, use portable motion controllers to manipulate the molecules. (Source: Nature). This modeling is based on distributed computing in the cloud and this tool allows researchers to compare computer models with research data.
Manipulation of molecules - Source: Nature
But perhaps the most fascinating project involving virtual reality among the multitude of experiments and research underway is the one Siemens Healthineers is working on. This firm, one of the world leaders in the field of diagnostic and interventional medical imaging, has recently developed a cardiac resynchronization tool. This artificial intelligence has been tested by cardiologists at the University of Heidelberg and Bordeaux University Hospital, to find out how a patient would respond to such an operation. (Source : Daily Mail).
The dual digital heart (photo) developed by Siemens Healthineers is an example of how medical device manufacturers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses as medicine enters an era of increasing personalization.
A pacemaker must resynchronize the heartbeat using two electrodes, one placed on the right ventricle and the other on the left ventricle, which generates a virtual electric current. This system, which combines artificial intelligence, massive data and virtual reality, makes it possible to simulate the course and effects of a medical intervention or treatment in a very realistic way.
But Siemens Healthineers is already looking further ahead and is convinced that, in a few years, probably before the end of the next decade, each of us will have a digital duplicate made up on the basis of the huge amount of biological and genetic data that we have, and on which it is possible to test treatments, drugs or prostheses in a fully personalized and predictive manner. Health will then enter a new era which will be characterized by a permanent and powerful relationship between real individuals and their virtual double .
Virtual Reality and Defense
Virtual reality is also gaining ground in the field of security and defence. The US Army, for example, launched the Tactical Augmented Reality (TAR) project in early summer 2017. This system is capable of pointing out the position of enemies and allies; it allows the user to know his own position in the operational system at all times and to have a detailed view of his environment at all times.
Another project developed by the US Navy and called GunnAR (Unified Gunnery System Augmented Reality), allows soldiers, still using a virtual reality helmet, to improve their shooting speed and accuracy. GunnAR also provides a complete analysis of the combat zone and identifies potential targets.
In Japan, Fujitsu and Kagawa University have started a study on the use of virtual reality and telepresence for special education in Japan. The aim is to raise awareness among teachers of the difficulties induced by disabilities and to train them to deal with them.
This experiment involves about 50 teachers in five schools ranging from elementary to high school, as well as in a training centre for the teaching staff. The virtual reality tool selected will in particular make it possible to simulate a situation of disability to help teachers understand the pupils' difficulties. Another application concerning teleconsultations and telediagnosis will also be tested and generalised if successful.
At the service of the services ...
But virtual reality can sometimes be used in fields far removed from research or high tech. BS, a leading meat cutting company with 1,300 employees in France, has experienced remarkable growth in recent years, leading it to triple the number of its employees. But today, this family company is encountering the greatest difficulties in recruiting new boners and trimmers, because this job, which is not well known, does not have a good image, even though it offers real prospects of long-term employment for some young people with no particular qualifications.
To try to erase this bad image, BS has developed, in cooperation with the company Artefacto, a new virtual reality tool to train its future butchers. These apprentices, equipped with a virtual reality helmet, can experience the reality of the trade in a very realistic way and without risk of injury. This futuristic choice has paid off, since BS has recruited 320 new employees since the beginning of the year, half of whom had no experience in the trade. By further improving this recruitment tool, it hopes to attract 700 more in the next three years.
There is no doubt that this dazzling progression of virtual reality tools in all human activities will offer mankind new horizons and allow fantastic advances in all fields of knowledge, starting with health and medicine. We must, however, be very vigilant and ensure that this scientific, technological and social breakthrough is not misused for the purpose of enslaving and subjugating individuals.
At the pace of technology, the realism, power and attractiveness of virtual reality will become much more quickly than we imagined absolutely irresistible. If we are not careful, then there will be an immense risk, as I wrote almost 20 years ago in my editorial "Virtual worlds: the drug of the twenty-first century", that the virtual universes to which we will all have access will become far more powerful drugs than any that exist today and will cause a great many people to lose their sense of reality completely, and may well lose their way for good in these new artificial digital paradises.
In the face of this very real threat, I believe it is very important to put in place, as of now, powerful legislative, educational, ethical and social safeguards, so as to prevent these abuses, which could prove devastating and destabilise our societies in depth.
I remain convinced, however, that if we succeed in making an enlightened and reasoned use of these extraordinary virtual reality tools, our species will be able to explore new, unsuspected dimensions of creation and knowledge and will make a major leap forward in its evolution and quest for knowledge.