VR aims to combine human senses such as hearing, touch and sight, with software and hardware to create an immersive exploratory virtual environment.

Virtual Reality

The term Virtual Reality (VR) is the combination of the words virtual and reality. The word virtual means near, while reality is what is experienced by humans. Therefore, VR means ‘near-reality’.

VR aims to combine human senses such as hearing, touch and sight, with software and hardware to create an immersive exploratory virtual environment. More technically, VR is a three-dimensional computer generated environment, which an individual can explore and interact with, as well as perform a series of actions or manipulate objects within the environment.Most commonly, VR is implemented using computer technology such as headsets, special gloves and omni-directional treadmills.

These systems aim to create the illusion of reality by stimulating human senses. VR has many current uses such as in healthcare, architecture, sports, and entertainment, and is very useful when a real-life activity could be expensive, dangerous or impractical to carry out. Virtual environments must ensure they provide responses to the user in real time as the user is exploring the space. This allows the interaction to be more free-flowing and natural.

VR originated over 70 years ago and since then, it has undergone major developments such as the first simulation device, first head mounted display (HMD) and the use of VR in the human-computer interaction (HCI) field. As technology in the 21st Century progressed, the public’s expectations for VR were over-hyped, leading to an initial scaling back in some research areas. Today, as VR is starting to live up to people’s expectations, such as VR games for PlayStation and Xbox, it is becoming a more popular tool. One recent innovation is the Google VR cardboard which is built for bite-size VR experiences and is compatible with most smartphones.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) is comprised of virtual reality superimposed into real life, where users are able to interact with virtual contents in the real world, think Snapchat filters. These virtual contents are typically in the form of digital imagery and sound such as videos or 3D models. AR technology similarly to VR, has also been in development since the 20th century, starting around the 1960s.

AR typically works via the use of a range of sensors such as a camera, computer components and a display device. Projection mapping is one way in which AR works. A typical example uses a smartphone to display digital objects in the real world. The smartphone via a camera senses a target to project a digital object onto such as a 2D image in the form of a poster. This can be simply done via the assistance of an AR app on the smartphone which is able to process the 2D image and augment it in a particular way with sounds and pictures.

An alternate method to projection mapping is the use of a prism projector. Prism projectors function by allowing the user to view the world unimpeded, where digital imagery is instead projected between the eye and real world making the digital objects appear more real. An example of where this technology is implemented can be found in the Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens. AR is also being used more in other mobile devices such as tablets and laptops and can be used in HMD which overlaps with its use in VR.

Apart from healthcare, AR can be used in many other areas such as the military, where radars can be projected for soldiers to view while in the battlefield, sports such as a golf GPRS system and gaming, where games like Pokémon Go have been very successful in the marketplace.

How can AR and VR be used in Healthcare?

VR and AR are transforming healthcare, from pain treatment to the democratisation of medical training. Here are some trends in the space:

Medical Learning

Hands-on training through surgical simulation environments where professionals and students can learn about diagnosing patients with health conditions is a field that is growing rapidly. Medical Realities delivers surgical training using VR to learn about medical concepts to do with surgical techniques. In April 2016, Prof Shafi Ahmed performed the world’s first live 360° operation on a cancer patient at the Royal London Hospital, over 55,000 people watched the livestream. In April 2017, Medical Realities released its first module.

Remote Surgery

One example of this, is the use of remote-controlled robots, where a head-mounted display and haptic gloves allow surgeons to carry out the surgeries remotely. Proximiehas a AR product that enables clinicians to virtually scrub into any clinical setting, in real-time, increasing access to high-quality surgical care across the world, and delivering an engaging training experience.

Pain Management 

VR has been shown to minimise pain in patients who have suffered with acute burnsinjuries in both children and adults. VR is also used for treatment of phantom limb pain where doctors can create a virtual environment for patients where patients missing limbs to relax muscles that no longer exist. AR can also be used to superimpose missing limbs.

Psychiatric Disorders

VR is used for early detection and prevention of mental health conditions such as psychosisManagement of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is being tackled via exposure therapy such as re-triggering traumatic events to help individuals manage these past events. Management of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) via OCD-exposure therapy is using VR for young people with a fear of germs.

Other uses of VR and AR are:

  • Using AR for patients describing symptoms where doctors can simulate specific conditions which patients can view to compare their own symptoms.
  • Medical imaging such as AccuVein‘s AR viewing system where a scanner is used to project the position of veins over the skin to locate the veins.
  • Companies such as MindMaze decreasing recovery time in stroke patients where patients can practice how to move their fingers and/or lift their arms through VR guidance.
  • Preparing patients for surgery.

Current Market and Industry Trends in AR and VR

The global VR and AR in healthcare market is growing at a high rate. A number of factors are fuelling the growth of this market: rapid adoption of VR and AR amongst healthcare professionals, benefits offered by VR and AR in healthcare applications, and growing investment and funding to develop innovative healthcare-based VR and AR products. There are several market size predictions that range from VR and AR predicted to reach $162 billion in revenue by 2020 with healthcare delivery, product design and management most likely to cause an increase in revenue. To another source predicting the AR and VR market to be worth $80 billion in 2025 with a ratio of $45 billion coming from hardware while $35 billion from software. 

Factors driving the  AR and VR market include

  • Advancement in computer technology
  • Internet connectivity advancement
  • Demand for AR and VR applications in healthcare
  • Lowering costs of equipment
  • Availability and price of VR headsets 

Factors inhibiting the growth of the AR and VR market include

  • Technology for AR and VR is expensive
  • More development needed in the technology
  • Long term effects of learning via AR and VR requires more studies for improving patient outcomes
  • Possible side effects such as nausea, falls, and simulation sickness must be further investigated


Both AR and VR show promising implications in the healthcare sector, and with the ongoing advancement in technology, this continuously opens new possibilities for its potential applications. Currently, more long term studies are required for the use of AR and VR in healthcare, especially with improving patient outcomes with VR/AR already starting to revolutionise how therapy is being developed for OCD sufferers, as well as how patients with acute burn injuries are treated.

Useful Internal Articles 

  1. Digital Health event in Virtual Reality 2017
  2. Master class Virtual Reality in healthcare. 2017


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Virtual and Augmented Reality Articles: