Smartphone powered VR is awesome for gaming, but did you know it's also blazing a new trail in the world of Medicine? Here's how...

virtual reality

What goes around comes around. Just as a lot of the tech in your pocket has filtered down to consumer level from advances in space programmes and military spending, the innovative hardware and software designed specifically for your smartphone often goes on to do great things in world-changing fields.

But how exactly can consumer technology – the kind designed to sit in your pocket, around your wrist or on your desk – help the whole world? In more ways than you think. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Vodafone Foundation, whose Connecting for Good programme has been using technology to make a difference in the world for the last quarter century, we’ve been looking into the ways in which technology intersects with world-changing fields. Today? It’s medicine’s time to shine…

Solving an age-old problem

Technology and medicine are obviously no strangers, but did you know that some of 2016’s hottest consumer tech is making its way into the operating room? To find out more we’ve been speaking to Dr Alex Magnussen, an orthopaedic surgeon at Imperial College London, who’s currently working on a pioneering method of using virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift to teach the next generation of medical students.

“One arm of it is my video gaming background,” Alex says of the thinking behind his VR research. “I’d been watching very closely the development of VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, Gear VR and Playstation VR, and while that’s an industry intended for video games, but everyone’s looking at it and wondering what else can be used for? I heard talk of the military doing things with VR to train people,” he says, “and that got me thinking…

“There are a lot of flaws in medical education as a whole. The standard way of doing things is to get 350 medical students into a lecture hall and talk to them for hours on end. As you progress and get into hospital medicine, you start following doctors around the wards and trying to learn by osmosis, all while going home in the evening and reading about what you’ve learned.”

Gear VR_Lifestyle

Currently, the highest level of technology in terms of training is called ‘Sim Man’, which is a lifelike plastic model replete with motors for breathing, motors behind the eyes for pupil dilation, and lots more, all connected up to an iPad. It’s good, but as Alex tells us, it’s not great:

“Depending on what the candidate in the simulation does, the Sim Man controller can change the blood pressure or their respiratory rate or their heart rate to mirror the actions taken. That’s fantastic, but the problem is that you’re still in the back room in a hospital, with people making funny noises to imitate strained breathing, and with your friends sitting on rows of chairs looking on and giggling, so it’s still a very fake scenario.

“It’s very, very difficult to realistically simulate a life support situation,” he explains. “You can learn all the right techniques, but the reality is that when you first get into a real life situation, everything just drains out of your brain; you freeze. It’s very clichéd, and it’s used in TV shows a lot, but it does happen. You realise it’s nothing like what you’ve read in a book or seen in a video.”

And so, Alex’s idea, backed by funding from Imperial College London (ICL), is to try to transform these archaic teaching methods using nothing more than a 360º camera, a smartphone and a £20 plastic VR headset…

Virtual emergencies

“What we wanted to do is find a way to create an immersive experience with which to teach life support – a programmed situation, which you as a student can witness, and it feels like you’re there. And that’s why we wanted to use VR.

We realised that if you could put a headset on and suddenly be thrust into a real life emergency department, with a real person made up to look like they’re in a horrible accident, and with people looking at a camera, then they’d be looking right into your eyes asking you to make decisions.

“People really remember what they’ve seen and experienced because it feels like everything is happening to them directly.”

“There are lots of scientific papers out there about education – not just in medicine but across the board – to say that the more immersed a candidate is in a scenario, the more they identify and the more they treat it as a valuable educational tool.”

Sounds promising, and while the project is still very much in its infancy, Alex tells us that the feedback is already very positive:

“Where we’re at now is that we have a 3D 360º camera, which captures a full sphere of HD video. So we’re filming scenarios around the hospital and then trialling them with medical students. One is a basic life support scenario where you’re walking along with someone and you find a person collapsed, and it’s a classic example of what you’re expected to do in any public street; check their vital signs and then start CPR. You’re not the person actually doing it in this video, but you are right there as it happens.

“We’ve shown it to about 20 medical students so far, and once the novelty of VR has worn off, they’ve all given really positive feedback on how useful they think it could be. People really remember what they’ve seen and experienced because it feels like everything is happening to them directly. It’s in its Alpha stage of development at the moment,” he adds, “but we’re seeing what sticks. We’re filming loads of stuff; different types of scenarios, some with just video, some with graphics and diagrams over the top, and we’re seeing what we can learn.”

samsung gear vr 1

Great things often have small beginnings, though, and Alex has plenty of ideas about how VR learning in medical schools can progress:

“A decision tree would be good,” he tells us. “You as the candidate would be asked what to do next, and each decision you’d make would take you further along, a bit like an RPG (role playing game) game. Then, depending on the decisions you’ve made, there would be various outcomes. That’s the very end goal – to actually make the VR experience more of a video game. We’d use something like Oculus Rift and its motion controllers to allow students to perform operations using VR. Currently the goal is to be able to give headsets to ten or so students at a time, have them all experience the same scenario, and then afterwards they’d discuss what happened.

“It’s all about giving people an idea of what it’s like to make those decisions in a real life situation.”

Paging Dr Smartphone

The most amazing part of all of this research is that it doesn’t lean on multi-million dollar technology; it’s all built around products anyone can buy.

“The camera we’re currently using costs £100,” says Alex, “and we’re using an iPhone in a plastic version of a ‘Google Cardboard’ headset to experience the videos. It’s so easy to take video on the camera, upload it to your computer and get that onto the phone, and the beauty of that is that you can give everyone an affordable headset and let them experience the videos on their own phones.”

“We’re using an iPhone in a plastic version of a ‘Google Cardboard’ headset.”

Moreover, Alex believes this kind of proliferation – where mobile consumer tech is being put to ingenious use in the medical space – is only set to continue:

“Where we are at present, for instance, is that your GP will call up patients one-by-one and ask them to take their blood pressure at home with big chunky monitors. But we could definitely get to the point soon where if everyone’s got wearable technology monitoring their vital signs, the GP could see all the info they need on one screen, moment to moment.

“That’s just one example, but overall I think consumer technology’s role in medicine could be phenomenal.”

Vodafone Foundation and mobile maternity

Our research into ‘tech for good’ is all to help us mark the 25th anniversary of the Vodafone Foundation, the part of our business using developments in mobile technology to help people around the globe.



With each new project, the Foundation looks to take a developing area of modern technology and find a way it can benefit a bunch of societal issues and challenges – and over the years it’s wielded some incredible results, like our work in the Philippines to connect people following Typhoon Haiyan, or our #BeStrong campaign, which aims to ease the pain of cyberbullying.

In the world of medicine, the Foundation’s latest project – dubbed ‘ambulance taxis’ – is an effort to halt high mother and infant mortality rates in the Sengerema and Shinyanga regions of Tanzania. There, the Foundation has set up an emergency line similar to 999 in the UK, with a network of 100 taxi drivers paid via our own M-Pesa mobile payments system who’re committed to driving pregnant women to their nearest hospital.

It’s a scheme that will save around 225 lives a month, and you can read all about it right here.

How does VR work? If you’re intrigued by the work going on in Imperial College London, click here to find out how virtual reality actually works. You can find out more about the Vodafone Foundation here.