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The Next Best Thing to Being There

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Surgeons at Alder Hey childrens hospital in Liverpool, U.K., have been using Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality technology in its operating theaters for more than two years.

Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are gaining traction because of the need for hands-free technology in the coronavirus age.


"Remote" has become the operative word in the months since the coronavirus pandemic hit, providing momentum to technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) toward enabling immersive and collaborative experiences in sectors ranging from telehealth to automotive and other manufacturing, and even in the military.

Once used mainly for gaming applications, both technologies are gaining traction because of the need for hands-free technology in the coronavirus age.

One report by IDTechEx puts the AR/VR and mixed technologies market at $30 billion by 2030. Another report, this one from Research and Markets, estimates the global augmented reality software market will reach $57.92 billion in 2023, from $8.81 billion in 2019. PwC last year predicted nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings, or to provide better customer service.

The top use case for AR is in remote assistance, such as enabling an untrained worker to connect to an expert who is not onsite, says Eric Abbruzzese, research director at ABI Research. "That was true before the pandemic, and it's especially true today with almost no one on site.

"You have instant access to that expertise and an increase in efficiencies in turnaround and getting that knowledge to that user,'' he says. If a complex piece of machinery stops working, that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in downtime. "Having instant access to an expert could reduce downtime from a day to a couple of hours."

If a worker is standing in front of a circuit board and has no idea how to repair it, usually there would be an expert on hand or the company would fly someone in to fix it, says Matt Fedorovich, national lead of immersive technology at Tempe, AZ-based Insight Enterprises, a global IT services provider.

Wearing a virtual reality headset like Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 or Microsoft's HoloLens, the worker can call on an expert who they can see in 3D; they can see him or her draw a circle or indicate which lever to turn or provide a schematic, he says. "We're starting to see an uptick in this, specifically around auditors who come in to check for compliance and safety or do home inspections. They take footage or capture photos and that can all be done remotely." That's instant return on investment (ROI), Fedorovich says, because it reduces the need for travel and paperwork.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, "We were in the innovation and early-adopter stage, where some companies were starting to tinker with [AR/VR]," Fedorovich says. "Then the pandemic hit and it turned into a desire and need for whole product solutions." It was then that CIOs and CTS started becoming more interested in virtual, augmented and mixed-reality technologies; now, Fedorovich says, they are "prioritizing this side of technology over other technologies because of the feature set it brings."

Immersive technologies are more engaging than traditional learning management systems, which are video- and PowerPoint-based, Fedorovich says.

The use of AR/VR headsets can put a user inside a Boeing 747, he adds, and they can literally walk through a learning module in a virtual training experience.

Facebook wants to create an experience beyond training and entertainment; it recently  demonstrated Infinite Office, a set of new features that puts users in a virtual office environment by working across multiple customizable screens.

Virtual healthcare

The University of Louisville School of Medicine began pilot tests of Vuzix M400 Smart Glasses in the past several months for emergency response, medical education and training, and care of patients in nursing homes and aging in place.

Dr. R. Brent Wright, associate dean for rural health innovation at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, says that once the pandemic went from a threat to a crisis, "The need for virtual technology was drastic, The pandemic lessened rules around telemedicine and helped our work. …With COVID-19, social distancing is the rule and the M400s allow for distance and connectivity."

The University of Louisville School of Medicine plans to use smart glasses during residential home care ,and also in long-term care facilities. Staff "will move toward the hospital later this year when the flu and likely COVID-19 cases are more prevalent,'' he adds.

Telemedicine is still in the innovation stage, but physicians need to continually find ways to innovate around patient care delivery, Wright says. "The ROI will show itself clearly in the coming months as we learn to offer patients interdisciplinary care that is less onerous to [them] and more collaborative for healthcare professionals."

Insight Enterprises helped deploy the HoloLens 2 at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in the U.K., where immersive and mixed-reality headsets are used to reduce the amount of physical contact between hospital staff, patients, and visitors. This, in turn, reduces the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) used.

Dr. Rafael Guerrero, clinical director of innovation and chief of congenital cardiac surgery at Alder Hay, says the devices lets medical experts provide remote advice by sharing images. "HoloLens 2 and mixed reality may, in the future, enable me to have a patient's scans in front of me while I'm doing the operation,'' he says.

"If I can use technology to obtain that information, to see those images in front of me, that helps me tremendously and improves the outcome for my patient."

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.


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