Feeling our Way towards the Future: Haptic VR and immersive pharmaceutical training tools

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Recent breakthroughs and innovations in haptics hardware for VR have significant implications for pharmaceutical companies, particularly in the areas of training, education, and patient care. The use of Extended Reality (XR) technology, which includes Virtual Reality (VR) and haptics, is gaining traction in the healthcare industry, with a focus on medical education, clinical skills training, and patient education. For pharmaceutical companies, these advancements offer opportunities to enhance training programs for medical professionals, improve patient education and engagement, and potentially develop innovative applications for therapy and patient care.The latest haptic developments for AR/VR/XR, as highlighted in the Smart Haptics 2022 event, are paving the way for more immersive and realistic experiences in virtual environments. Specifically, in the context of pharmaceutical companies, the use of XR technology, including haptic feedback, can be leveraged to transform medical training and education. For instance, tools incorporating the latest HapticVR technology are designed to create a precise sense of touch, enabling the necessary skills transfer and ongoing skills retention, which can be valuable for training healthcare professionals in various pharmaceutical settings 1.

While there are technological issues that need to be resolved to maximize the utility of XR in medical education, the potential of XR technology in healthcare is being increasingly recognized. Research and development of XR in healthcare, including haptics, are showing promise in areas such as clinical skills training, patient education, and therapy. The growing value of XR in healthcare, as evidenced by cutting-edge research, innovative collaborations, and trials, indicates the potential for XR to bring significant value to clinical and non-clinical settings, including those relevant to pharmaceutical companies 2.

Recent hardware developments in haptic XR technology have focused on creating a more precise sense of touch that enables skills transfer and ongoing skills retention. One example of such hardware is the HapticVR technology developed by med-tech companies like FundamentalVR. This technology specializes in creating a precise sense of touch that enables the necessary skills transfer and ongoing skills retention, but with a key shortcoming: the controllers do not replicate the form factor of the real-world tools used in the procedures (see inset).

Another example is the XR hand-controllers that are being developed to replicate the minute tactile techniques and sensations required for proficiency in surgery. These hand-controllers are still facing challenges in accurately replicating haptic sensations, but they are being improved upon to make them more effective. At the other end of the spectrum are highly realistic teaching aids that are specific to particular operations, such as the UpSurgeOn Brainbox (pictured below), which present their own challenges of scalability and reusability.

This is reminiscent of a recent R&D mixed reality project we worked on that combined the Microsoft Hololens 2 with a custom-designed latex head filled with proprietary hardware (and connected to an actual syringe with in-built microsensors) to train clinicians in facial cosmetic interventions by projecting a virtual patient’s head on top of the actual head. This gave a very realistic sense of haptic feedback, allowing us to measure the speed, depth and precision of syringe injections into the facial area down to a sub-millimetre level.

But perhaps most revolutionarily of all virtual solutions is WeTac, a wireless mesh-like skin controller that is designed to replicate the haptic feedback with a minute form factor, see below.

Designed by a team at Hong Kong’s City University in the Biomedical Engineering department, the interface contains multiple electrodes throughout its glove-like structure and provides electrical feedback to induce sensations of touch across their entire hand. The “glove” is only 1mm thick and weighs 19g – a far cry from some of the bulkier alternatives on the market, such as Microsoft’s Claw controller:

Microsoft’s Claw controller, now 5 years old, was a compelling – if bulky – solution to the application of haptic force in a virtual scenario.

In summary, recent breakthroughs and innovations in haptics hardware for VR, as part of the broader XR landscape, hold great potential for pharmaceutical companies. These advancements can be leveraged to enhance medical training, improve patient education, and potentially develop innovative applications for therapy and patient care. As the field of XR in healthcare continues to evolve, pharmaceutical companies have the opportunity to explore and integrate these technologies to advance their training, education, and patient care initiatives. The future looks bright (and tactile).

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