Tokyo hospital uses VR to livestream surgery for education, research in a COVID-19 world

Virtual reality is being explored to provide immersive experiences without the risk of infection.

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A hospital in Japan has turned to virtual reality (VR) and enhanced camera technology as a potential solution to research and education challenges posed by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

At the time of writing, there are over 6.1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The spread of the respiratory disease has not only caused health, social, and economic devastation, but also disruption in education and research. 

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In some sectors, learning is hands-on and there is no online substitute for observation or participation. In the medical field, for example, surgical interns unable to access operating theaters due to social distancing measures and infection concerns could be missing out on key training for their future careers. 

However, VR applications may provide part of a solution to this challenge. 

Tokyo Women's Medical University hosts the Smart Cyber Operation Theater (SCOT), a next-generation treatment room that acts as a testbed for new technologies that may improve medical safety, efficiency, and patient outcomes. 

Robotics, data collection, and artificial intelligence (AI) have been experimented with in the hub; and now, high-tech imaging and VR have been added to the mix. 

In a user study recently published by camera vendor Insta360, the company said an Insta360 Titan camera, Insta360 8K Live software, and Hacosco VR solutions are being used to provide an "immersive live stream" for "medical students and other doctors [to] experience an operation in real-time from the surgeon's perspective."

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Space and safety concerns already limit how many people can be in a theater at one time, and now, COVID-19 has potentially made the task of training new surgeons and improving the knowledge and skills of existing medical professionals even more difficult. 

A massive camera capable of recording and transmitting 8K video has been installed in SCOT, which provides live streams for wearers of VR headsets outside of the theater. 

"At a time when COVID-19 social distancing protocols are limiting in-person classes, VR live streaming can provide an immersive educational experience," the company says.

According to Hacosco CEO Dr. Naotaka Fujii, the VR-enabled video feeds provide a field of view not-before-seen in operating theaters, improving observation for watchers while not blocking the surgeon's field of view. 

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Currently, two external observers can watch the surgery in real-time using headsets, but this number could potentially be expanded in the future. 

In addition, the 8K footage can be saved and recorded. The university intends to share these recorded streams at future conferences and in medical education classes. 

"Especially in the current situation, we believe that VR live streaming is very useful because you can share an immersive experience while avoiding human contact," Fujii commented. "VR technology is definitely progressing in the medical field. It's becoming increasingly common in research and education applications, such as this project, and in postoperative rehabilitation."

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