Virtual reality: Coming to an imaging provider near you?

Blu-Ray, 3D TVs and now virtual reality—three technologies that were each hailed at one point as the next big thing in consumer entertainment. One became ubiquitous, one all but disappeared and the jury’s still out on whether or not virtual reality (VR) is here to stay.

Even if consumers balk at wide-scale adoption of headsets such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, VR has a multitude of applications in radiology—some of which are already being used in imaging departments across the world.

A few years ago, for instance, a team from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital built VR training modules that recreate actual surgical suites at the hospital, teaching interventional radiology (IR) trainees how to set up a basic surgical tray or how to perform a CT-guided biopsy or angiogram. Trainees can’t access the surgical suite all the time, so a VR reconstruction is an effective way for them to familiarize themselves with procedures and workflows.

Another elegantly simple application was pioneered by Vasileios Moustakas, MD, of Evangelismos Hospital in Athens, Greece. Moustakas and colleagues investigated whether a consumer VR headset could be used to read DICOM images as an alternative to medical-grade monitors. Viewing images through the headset is the equivalent of viewing them on a 175-inch screen, only completely mobile—a substantial upgrade from the cramped displays of other mobile devices.

However, the most exciting developments in VR are just appearing on the horizon. 3D printing is already being used to create models of patients' organs for surgical prep, but an integrated 3D printing lab is a huge investment of resources—a single printer can cost more than $500,000, in addition to the valuable space a lab requires in a crowded hospital. VR technology, on the other hand, allows surgeons to view 3D images of internal organs and examine the anatomy from every angle, clueing them in to the least-invasive surgical path. VR is less expensive than 3D printing and it has another huge advantage: it’s reusable. When you print an anatomical model, you can’t put it back together after practicing precise cuts and excisions; with a virtual model, you just press reset.

Radiology is uniquely suited to take advantage of VR, especially as 3D imaging utilization continues to grow. The referral-based nature of imaging means practices could easily modify workflows to create and distribute 3D images for VR use—the structure is already there. In addition, providing VR experiences to other specialties strengthens cross-departmental relationships that can lead to improved clinical collaboration or spur research down the road.

Exciting, right? Of course, it’s still going to be several years before we see widespread adoption of VR technology. But the chances are good that this technological breakthrough won’t go the way of 3D TVs.