In a nondescript office building in downtown Palo Alto, I enter a conference room with the furnishings of a typical Silicon Valley tech company. Suddenly, my view changes, and I am transported to the inside of a brightly lit operating room, myself fully gowned and staring down at the exposed knee of an anesthetized patient. I turn my head to the right, pick up an orthopedic insertion handle, and slowly step toward the patient.
So begins my meeting with our own Medgadget editor, Dr. Justin Barad, who is co-founder and CEO of Osso VR, a company that is seeking to modernize surgical training through the use of virtual reality (VR).
But what about surgical training that is in need of technological disruption?
According to Barad, the typical training process for surgeons (at least the orthopedic specialty) largely consists of low-tech instruction manuals and videos, and often involves traveling to one-day surgical training courses. On occasion, there might be a single brief training procedure on a cadaver. It is often many months later that the surgeon is thrown into the operating room to perform the newly learned technique on real patients without having had any real practice. It’s no wonder that residents can become so uneasy during their first live surgeries, and patients consequently can be averse to being operated on in teaching hospitals or treated with new surgical techniques.
With Osso VR, orthopedic surgeons can not only freely look and move around their environment with a VR headset, but the hand controllers allow them to hold and manipulate tools and devices in the right sequence and “operate” on a patient’s leg with accurate and precise movements. And while it might at first sound a little like a more serious version of the Surgeon Simulator 2013 game we wrote about in 2013, Osso VR makes the experience as accurate as possible and grades your performance based on time, accuracy, and other metrics that surgeons are typically evaluated on.
One of the benefits of this is that orthopedic surgeons can train for procedures on their own time before operating on real patients. Osso VR could even be given to first-year medical students (or heaven forbid, armchair surgeons like yours truly) to jumpstart their training.
Like the majority of VR-based experiences, haptic feedback was limited to soft taps and vibrations when drilling and hammering. I asked Barad if a lack of realistic tactile feedback was ever a point of concern. He replied that, surprisingly, the VR experience is so immersive that the brain tends to create its own haptic feedback when it thinks the hand is supposed to be touching or grasping something, and the user doesn’t even realize it. He even shared that the first time he played with Intuitive Surgical‘s da Vinci Surgical Robot, he remarked how great the tactile feedback was, even though there wasn’t any!