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Walk a Mile in My CT Suite: How To Use Virtual Reality To Make Research Insights Come Alive

As independent consultants, we often get hired to visit people and places that many of our clients, especially manufacturers of medical devices, either can’t or don’t get a chance to visit.

Because of HIPAA, patient privacy, and competitive edge, healthcare environments can be some of the least accessible environments for researchers, yet we need to deeply understand these environments in order to best inform our product designs.

VR is especially valuable for healthcare industry clients, because it’s often harder to get access to the intended use environment, users, and pieces of equipment in action.

Even when it’s possible to get access, there’s likely a need to minimize the number of observers to avoid disrupting the ecosystem. Many who are interested just can’t be in the room.

We’ve found virtual reality (VR) to be a great tool for sharing access to limited-access spaces. Virtual reality experiences make the research we’re hired to do come alive for stakeholders who aren’t able to be there.

The Value of Virtual Reality Deliverables

VR lets us bring manufacturers into spaces they can’t, or at least typically don’t, go into. It provides them with an unbiased but context-focused environment. And it allows them to explore and discover insights that we have mapped within that space. All of this makes it a much more compelling delivery mechanism than a report or a PowerPoint.

Annotating photos with insights allows the viewer to uncover them on their own as they meander through a space. They explore the aspects they find most interesting at their own pace, and in the order that makes the most sense to them. This personal discovery process encourages deeper engagement among stakeholders.

Virtual reality also gets people hooked on learnings. With a quick walkthrough, stakeholders can easily get a feel for the space and for the value of the insights. They become more engaged in the research because of the contextual nature of the deliverable. They might find themselves craving more and turning to the report

Virtual reality gets people hooked on learnings. They become more engaged in the research. They might find themselves craving more and turning to the report.

While VR has been around long enough for many people to have some experience using it, the technology still isn’t mainstream. Its novelty helps, because people get more interested in research insights when there’s a “cool,” high-tech way to experience them.

For one client who hired us to do research inside clinical laboratories across the U.S. and EU, this tool gave us a cost-effective and easy way to bring them along for the journey, without the time and cost of travel. Our project sponsors were so enamored of the experience that they wanted to show leadership right away, so we ended up giving them our headsets after the final project presentation!

Demo: Our Virtual Tour of a CT Suite

To provide some context, here is how we understand the differences between AR, MR, and VR:

Augmented Reality (AR): Overlays virtual objects on the real-world environment
Mixed Reality (MR): Does not just overlay, but anchors virtual objects to the real world
Virtual Reality (VR): Immerses user in a fully artificial digital environment

In the case of VR use in research deliverables, we’re using it by overlaying research findings and information onto static 360 images viewed in a VR headset.

The 360-degree video, below, is representative of what VR can produce from contextual research.

This video is only a walkthrough on a single screen using a mouse to control it, but imagine you’re a stakeholder wearing a virtual reality headset. You’re able to move through the CT suite at Jefferson University Hospital’s ER at your own pace and jump to the areas that interest you. As you move your head with the headset on, you see the room as if you’re actually in the space.

Click through the hallway, entry, patient view and technician view of the CT suite. The map pins move you from room to room or to different vantage points in the room. The “i’s” show information bubbles mapped to the space — we’ve only mapped a few for the purpose of this demo, but it’s up to your team to decide how much or how little to map. You can even embed data, photos, or video in these information bubbles, capturing a ton of valuable insights right in the relevant context.

(Note: We created the above virtual tour of a CT suite at Jefferson’s ER with kind assistance from Jefferson’s team. Bresslergroup partners with the Health Design Lab at Thomas Jefferson University, one of the largest medical systems in Philadelphia, on a course curriculum that guides medical students through the medical device design and development process. We use this demo to share with interested clients and audiences at conferences, because we can’t share the confidential VR deliverables we’ve generated for client projects.)

How VR Helps Make the Case for Human-Centered Design

Though we can’t name the client or show you the deliverables, we can talk in general terms about a client who benefited from this method. This client manufactures a large piece of medical equipment that treats a specific condition.

Once they sell their product into the market and after it’s been delivered, they have no way of knowing what happens during its day-to-day use. Our client typically only hears about equipment in the field if it breaks, because repair is the only reason for a customer to contact them.

Many of the people who contributed to the design of the product had never personally experienced the patient’s perspective, nor experienced the product in use. Once they put on headsets, they were transported to the patient’s perspective.

The manufacturer assumed its customers were complying with its guidelines for monitoring patients during usage. However, when our team did research in the field, we witnessed otherwise. We saw staff coming and going, rather than staying in the room with the patient for the duration of the treatment.

Using VR, we captured images of an empty room from the patient’s perspective. Many of the people who contributed to the design of the product had never personally experienced the patient’s perspective, nor experienced the product in use in a physician’s office. Among other insights, we were able to embed details of how often technicians left the room at all the sites we visited, putting that insight in context of the room’s 360 image.

The VR experience quite literally brought the user perspective to the forefront of business decisions being made by the team.

Our clients put on headsets and were transported to the patient’s perspective. They got a sense of things happening to them and of being in the patient’s shoes during this specialized treatment. The experience intensified their empathy for the patient. Some remarked that wearing the headset and being able to look around the room made them feel small and isolated next to the equipment.

The VR experience quite literally brought the user perspective to the forefront of business decisions being made by the team. It highlighted the importance of staff staying in the room. The manufacturer realized the need to either emphasize this point in their guidelines, or to better enable staff to monitor patients remotely during treatment.

Get Started with VR Deliverables

As with any new technology, there’s no bottom to the rabbit hole you can descend into when you begin to explore what equipment is available and what’s possible. Our suggestions are a quick and affordable way to get started and immediately start delivering value.

Getting started with virtual reality deliverables

Here are the steps to do exactly what we did for our CT Suite demo above:

  • Step 1: Capture 360 images from around the space in which you’re researching. We use a pretty basic Samsung 360 camera (see more details, below), but any 360 camera will do.
  • Step 2: Load those images into any virtual-tour creation site. We use Round.me because we find it intuitive and easy to navigate, but there are plenty of options out there. Within those tools, you can organize your images to create the virtual “walkthrough” we showed, as well as add in the insights you want to share with people as they explore the space.
  • Step 3: Open the same tour in your VR headset and explore. We like to use the Oculus Go because it’s affordable, comfortable, and self-contained, but again, there are a lot of options out there. In order to use Round.me, the headset must be connected to WiFi.

A Peek at Our Virtual Reality Kit

The great thing is, with these tools, truly anyone can do this. The steps are simple, and the tools have been around long enough that a quick Internet search will surface lots of guides to help you out.

a peek at our virtual reality kit

Your VR Starter Kit

Here is all you need to get started. (Note: This is not a sales pitch — we’re sharing info about equipment we’ve used or researched.) In the above image, the only things required in the field are shown in the left half. The things in the right half are used for creating and sharing the immersive deliverable after the fact:

  • Samsung 360 Camera and a compatible phone for taking remote images. We like this camera because it offers an affordable entry into 360 cameras with solid quality images/videos, and ties Android support to a Samsung phone.
  • Two Tripods: Get a standard height tripod and a pocket-size gorilla grip tripod. The standard-height tripod will let you take pictures from a typical standing perspective; any lightweight, thin tripod is great for quick setup and easy mobility. The smaller, flexible tripod will make it easy to capture images “from the patient’s point of view” in equipment with a chair or bed — the Flexible Goby Tripod is great for this.
  • A Virtual Tour Website: We like Round.me.
  • Oculus Go Headset: This is an affordable, excellent quality, portable headset that requires no additional computers, phones, or cables to enjoy 360 content. This fully contained VR headset has the screen and memory built-in. There’s no expandable storage, which will limit you to 32GB or 64GB of storage.

You can own all this gear for under $500, and use it over and over across projects. And another great thing about this toolkit is its compactness. If you forgo the full-height tripod, you can carry all that you need for field research in your pockets or a small bag.

We also researched and liked the YI 360 VR Camera, a reasonably priced unit that captures excellent quality video but only supports Windows software with some limited editing tools. And the GoPro Fusion is more expensive but allows for higher-end professional-grade quality images with 5.2K resolution.

We looked at other headsets, too. The HTC Vive Headset is high-quality with excellent image quality, but it comes at a much higher price and requires a PC to run your 360 content, which makes it difficult to travel with. Unless you plan on utilizing this headset for other VR activities, this might be too much for simple image and video viewing. And the Samsung Gear VR Headset is very cheap but requires the use of a Samsung phone for the display of the 360 content. Unless you have Samsung phones already, using this headset will be pricey with the purchase of the latest Galaxy S phones.

Tips We’ve Learned the Hard Way

Finally, when you have your equipment and you’re ready to start making your immersive VR experiences, here are four tips to help you get off to a good start:

  • Don’t hold the camera in your hand when you take pictures. You end up with some very distorted and disturbing images of your hand, arm, and face. We do not recommend that! Get a mount and use a phone/remote to take the photo.
  • Take photos in doorways. They’re natural transition points from one space to the next. This makes the virtual exploration of the room more intuitive.
  • Point-of-view video can be jarring. Use proper stabilization. We’ve found these deliverables much more digestible when we use still images, not video. Without more sophisticated stabilization equipment, the video just is a bit nauseating.
  • Have people “hide.” Capture empty space during the photoshoot, or ask people to stand still to lessen blurring.

The Future of Virtual Reality in Research

As with any new technology, it’s fairly easy and natural to imagine all the ways to improve the experience. The following is our wishlist for a more robust and affordable use of VR in research deliverables in the future.

Some of these items already exist or are being worked on, but are only accessible to large studios or individuals with a lot of disposable income:

  • Haptic feedback to simulate the sensation of an experience
  • More sensory simulation (like smell or vibration)
  • Add audio clips and better graphics to enhance the images (within lightweight, portable, and affordable headsets)
  • Better and less expensive ways to steady the camera for video, and to make it less nauseating
  • Use VR video to show a stationary recording of an interview or what it was like to watch someone use a product up close, without moving the 360 camera

Of course, we’re not the first to bring virtual reality to the healthcare field. Over the last few years we’ve seen huge advancements in using virtual reality for patient care. (Check out the VRAR Association healthcare committee).

Virtual Reality is a technology that has found ways to help patients and health care providers via many different applications — in surgery, treatment, education, pain management, rehabilitation, therapy, and more. We’re excited to also now be able to apply it successfully to our research process.

Do you have thoughts about the future of VR in medicine? Are you doing similar work with VR as a way of communicating research? We’re curious about your experience, and the reaction to it so far. Please reach out and let us know!

Read about another way we’ve integrated virtual reality into our product development process in How We Do It: Virtual Reality for Better, Faster Prototyping.