• Andrew Sweeney, seated, and another industrial designer with Battelle’s Human Centric Design group use virtual reality technology to get user feedback about a hand-held medical device.
     Andrew Sweeney, seated, and another industrial designer with Battelle’s Human Centric Design group use virtual reality technology to get user feedback about a hand-held medical device.

The Virtue of Virtual Reality For Medical Devices

June 1, 2017
By Sandra Jontz
E-mail About the Author

The technology is changing health care for patients and doctors.


There are days when Andrew Sweeney transforms from a 38-year-old industrial designer into a superhero. In his Columbus, Ohio, office, with one familiar swipe of his smartphone, he becomes an 80-year-old diabetic patient with compromised motor skills and even poorer eyesight that make it really difficult to grip an insulin injector.

Sweeney, who works at Battelle, an independent, nonprofit research and development organization, does not leap tall buildings or fly at lightning speed, but he does help medical experts refine products and procedures that better people’s lives. The application of virtual reality, unlike a traditional video game, could mean the difference between designing an insulin injector that works well and one that does not.

Virtual reality, or VR, might be getting off to a slow start overall, analysts say, but the nascent technology is seeing a boom in the education and health care sectors. Driven by advancements in health care information technology, the global market for VR in health care will reach $3.8 billion by 2020, expanding applications to diverse medical disciplines and increasing demand for rehabilitation and simulation training, reports Global Industry Analysts, a market research firm in San Jose, California. Scientists are using VR to teach languages, cure phobias and change experiences for medical professionals as much as for patients. Surgeons can practice difficult procedures on virtual patients before ever making the first real slice. Scores of surgical students can strap on headsets and observe and learn from just about anywhere in the world. And bedridden patients can escape the confines of dreary hospital recovery rooms in the blink of an eye using VR technology.

These advances and more are brought to life courtesy of a generation of digital natives and gamers who are coming into their own in research and development, Sweeney says. “There’s a great deal of buzz and excitement with this exposure to the technology and how it hits so close to home now,” says the die-hard gamer who is pushing to mainstream the approach in research and development circles. “There is a natural adoption of putting a headset on and being completely immersed in a new design digital environment. I wanted to capture the usability of how this technology is naturally accepted.”

Battelle is tapping VR for a number of projects, crafting medical devices and procedures designed with end users in mind from the beginning, says Dr. Amy Schwartz, an industry thought leader and a cognitive psychologist on Battelle’s Human Centric Design (HCD) team.

Paramount to the HCD team’s efforts, she says, is letting designers and engineers use VR to gain an empathetic understanding of what a visually impaired, elderly patient with diminished motor skills, for example, might experience when trying to use that awkwardly designed insulin injector. This approach also can help them understand the effects interruptions have on nurses dispensing medication—distractions that sometimes can lead to errors. “Empathy is really a cornerstone of humancentric design,” Schwartz says.

Humancentric design pays off in other ways as well. Patients who have positive experiences with medical devices are more likely to use them properly, which is paramount in today’s environment of evidence- and outcomes-based medicine, she continues. “We need to design personal medical devices so they fit into people’s lives, not the other way around. Medication adherence is complex, but one simple thing is true: Medicine doesn’t work if people don’t take it correctly,” Schwartz says.

That understanding becomes more profound when researchers and designers become the patients, if even for a short—and virtualized—period of time, Sweeney shares. “That first-person perspective removes any ambiguity. It’s taking the guesswork out of what this person has to experience,” he says.

The technique is a lot like the gaming Sweeney is used to, but by tapping a cross section of designer experiences, researchers can create an ideal medically based avatar to test, evaluate and improve their concept devices well before putting them in front of real users. “Most gamers play to escape and become that superhuman who can jump higher or fly or overcome obstacles—only in my version, I would be a grandma,” he jests.

While the approach of using VR in this space is relatively cutting-edge, Sweeney reveals, the graphics are not. “You’re not really getting Pixar-quality, triple-A gaming experiences right now,” he offers. The graphics technology is considered antiquated by today’s standards. “You’re getting ’90s console computer graphics. But it’s different now. Now you’re present in the space.” So while the images might be pixilated throwbacks to a 16-bit, 2-D graphics era, the experiences are not. “You don’t need much,” Sweeney promises. “There’s no magic formula to providing that spatial presence.” 

VR not only enriches device testing but also saves time. The technology makes rapid prototyping possible, Schwartz offers. Imagine several surgeons all gathered in a virtual surgical suite—tuning in from their offices, homes or wherever is convenient—to test a new tool. “We can have the surgeon holding this tool in the virtual world, and he says, ‘Really, I would like this to be lighter and have a longer pointed front,’” Schwartz outlines. “Andrew then goes to his computer and does whatever brilliant magic he does with the software, and all of a sudden this thing the surgeon was just talking about is in his hand.”

The days of waiting for a physical prototype or for a 3-D printer to craft a revised tool could be over, Sweeney says. 

The HCD team’s work is more than just avoiding errors—it is putting people first, Schwartz affirms. Her passion for helping others began at an early age. She is the daughter of a physicist who worked for General Electric’s space program in the 1960s. “My father helped put a man on the moon, literally,” she recalls. “When I was a kid, that was so unbelievable and thrilling, to actually use your training to make an impact like that on the world.”

Today her mission is to take device usability from good to great with VR’s help. “We must incorporate emotional, social and cultural factors to create great design. Why can’t medical devices include small moments of delight like consumer products do?” Schwartz asks.

That will take a shift in the widely held view that medical devices are rarely fun. Sweeney wonders if designers could tweak that paradigm a bit. “Often, when you’re thinking about a child who has to wear an insulin pump to his elementary school, maybe that pump doesn’t have to look like a medical device,” he offers. “Maybe it can look no different than the cellphone in your pocket.”

That is the empathy factor Schwartz speaks of: designing a device from a child’s use perspective. 

When the tidal wave of hype over VR subsides, the HCD team needs to grasp its value and obtain an “understanding of when it’s appropriate and when it’s not” to use, Sweeney surmises. “Are we reducing time? Are we getting to solutions faster? Are we making life better?”

Those just might be superhero questions.

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