Let me confirm what might be nagging you about the “metaverse”: There’s more to it than what you’ve been reading.
The metaverse hype-men would have you believe that the ultimate purpose of this technology is a fancy ‘second life’ where consumers put on a clunky headset, create a digital twin of themselves, and buy that twin some virtual Nike shoes and artificial real estate. It’s all sneakers and NFTs; shopping, sports and concerts. It’s all consumerism and little impact.
At best, this is an ill-informed vision of where this technology (that the video game industry built and developed over decades) can take us. At worst, it distracts from the actual value.
The promise of the metaverse is real and, even better, the underlying technology is quietly delivering on that promise in the industry you’d least expect: healthcare.
Here’s a few examples of how “medicine’s metaverse” is set to transform this industry:
Massively-Multiplayer, low-risk medical training
Cloud gaming technology can enable physicians from disparate locations to practice procedures together, collaboratively, on a virtual patient over Zoom. There’s no special app or headset needed because the virtual patients (and the accompanying fluids, soft tissues, and ultrasound beams) are all simulated in the cloud. These physicians can train on difficult clinical cases they would only otherwise experience on a live patient.
Imagine: Just like Fortnite allows a hundred players to play competitively in a shared environment, this technology can enable up to hundreds of physicians to competitively (and collaboratively) diagnose and treat virtual patients at in-person and online medical conferences, across specialties like dermatology, rheumatology, and immunology.
Medical device and life science companies can also use this technology to teach and train healthcare professionals on their devices and therapeutics. For example, Munich-based Brainlab created an interactive virtual version of their radiotherapy system that replicated a hospital site visit, allowing healthcare professionals to engage, step-by-step with their technology and software from anywhere, anytime – all available to stream to multiple users across any device.
In this and many similar cases, instead of traveling from hospital to hospital (challenging even before the pandemic) or trying to explain multimillion-dollar equipment using a slide deck or videos, companies can let healthcare professionals diagnose, treat, and operate on virtual patients together over Microsoft Teams. These technologies will move the needle (at scale) from a business perspective, measurably increasing time, sales, and performance.
Real Digital Twins
In medicine, digital twins can capture massive amounts of patient scan data (MRI, CT, ultrasound scans) over time–coalesced into one view–to plan surgeries and monitor disease progression and treatment. In many cases, prototypes and replicas of the human body, hospital systems or entire hospitals are already in use.
Researchers at Empa have already created several hundred avatars of real people suffering from chronic pain and are using them to optimize and predict the impact of medications.
NASA is exploring the ability to capture digital twins of astronauts before launch in anticipation of long-haul missions to the moon and Mars. Virtualizing real anatomy can answer questions like, does this ultrasound taken nine months into the mission match the astronaut’s digital twin, taking into account the anticipated changes from the known impact of microgravity? Or is something wrong?
Video games have been improving the ability to recreate human skin for over a decade–to the point that game characters today are indiscernible from reality. Now, healthcare is leveraging this same technology to recreate any skin disease, on skin of any color, under any lighting environment–helping, for example, to train dermatologists to recognize rare skin diseases on skin of color when there is no reference in the literature.
When applied in the operating room, AR headsets can digitally project a patient’s digital twin on top of the physical body during surgery. Surgeons can see the CT and MRI data ‘inside’ of the patient as they perform a procedure, knowing precisely where the needle, scalpel, or drill will line up with the anatomy. Surgeons have already performed augmented reality surgeries on live patients, correcting spine problems and removing tumors. This is where the intersection of digital and physical worlds has real value.
Ultimately, what really separates Medicine’s metaverse from the hype you may be reading about is that you don’t have to wait patiently, hoping to see the societal and commercial value one day. From cloud-based collaborative training to AR surgical planning, in many cases the value is already being realized or is on the cusp of happening today. It’s being realized for patients, for medical professionals, for society, and for industry.