Oct 23, 2023

From skeptic to advocate: Metaverse in medicine

When I first heard about people in medicine using the metaverse, I was the biggest skeptic.

My friend, S.K. Steven Houston III, MD, explained it to me as a concept, and it was right around the time there was a lot of buzz in the media about people buying real estate in the metaverse and other crazy ideas. I thought, “This is never going to take off.”

Tablet with medical symbols
Temporary closures and early retirements abruptly altered the patient care landscape, while adaptations such as hybrid telemedicine and social distancing aimed to help us move forward under such extraordinary circumstances.

Source: Adobe Stock

After I had a chance to try it, however, it was easy to see the potential.

When you use virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus, it is otherworldly. I have had the chance to attend a few meetings in the metaverse, and it is completely immersive, and I think that gives us several advantages. One is spatial audio, which enhances the audio based on your proximity to the speaker. If I am standing in one corner of the meeting room, I can talk to my friends without hearing the conversations that are farther away. It brings a real social dynamic to meetings that you do not get with “traditional” virtual platforms.

These immersive virtual settings are also more engaging for attendees. You see people come to the meetings early and leave late so they can have a chance just to explore. I think that is an aspect of meetings that we missed a lot over the course of the pandemic. We certainly had the transmission of information, which you can find online or in a recording, but what makes meetings so unique is being able to sit and talk with your friends and colleagues. That is where the magic happens, around that social dynamic.

The metaverse is also an ideal place to watch and comment on 3D surgical videos. We have incredible heads-up displays that allow us to create videos to watch in 3D virtual reality. The metaverse gives us greater dynamism to surgical videos and surgical techniques, which makes them more engaging. Rarely can you get that in a larger meeting. Personally, I have had some experience using the platform for retina grand rounds. It really feels interactive. People raise their hands and ask questions.

Alcon has a new VR system that can be used to train residents on how to do cataract surgery and other procedures. Being able to train fellows or other students through systems integrated into the metaverse provides us with unique and helpful opportunities. The system could be preprogrammed with difficult cases, and anyone in the world could use the platform to manipulate different tools to perform the VR surgery. At the same time, anyone in the world could watch.

The one caveat is that we are still in the early phases of the metaverse. The avatars can be underwhelming. It is not like you believe you are looking at a real person. Things do not look natural, and the images can be pixelated. However, improvements are coming. Meta just announced a new Oculus headset, Sony is working on a new VR headset for the PlayStation 5, and I think Apple will be a player in this as well. When the technology improves, visualization will improve by leaps and bounds.

I was walking around the expo room at the recent American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting and thought to myself, “I can foresee a time in which we are not in Chicago, but at home, wearing VR headsets.” We can have all the great aspects of the meeting at our fingertips but without all the issues of getting on an airplane, getting a hotel, paying for taxis and all of the other things that we do right now.

  • For more information:
  • John W. Kitchens, MD, can be reached at Retina Associates of Kentucky, 120 North Eagle Creek Drive, Suite 500, Lexington, KY 40509; email: jkitchens@gmail.com.