by Liz Hillman
Back in June, ophthalmology had a first—the first grand rounds in the field to take place in the metaverse, according to Eric Rosenberg, DO.
First, what’s the metaverse? According to the tech magazine Wired, which acknowledges it as a “vague and complex term,” the term refers to “how we interact with technology,” and at present, most of the time that technology is virtual reality and/or augmented reality.
Dr. Rosenberg, cofounder of the Digital Ophthalmic Society (DOS) and partner in MetaMed Media, said the idea for a grand rounds in the metaverse was brainstormed by him, Steven Houston, MD, Ranya Habash, MD, and John Kitchens, MD (also a cofounder of DOS).
“The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. … It opened up our eyes to all the possibilities, and as they say, necessity is the mother of invention,” Dr. Rosenberg said.
The team of physicians realized that people were quickly getting tired of Zoom calls during the height of the pandemic when in-person events were not taking place. One of the benefits of Zoom, however, is that it allows people from all over the world to easily gather in one place, he said.
“The metaverse offers a nice compromise,” he said, explaining that in the metaverse, if the attendee has a virtual reality headset, they have a 3D avatar of themselves and 3D surround audio. Voices travel just like they do in the real word.
The first ophthalmology grand rounds to be held in the metaverse allowed participants to attend as virtual reality avatars with the ability to move around and interact within the space similar to how they would at an in-person event.
Source: Westchester Medical Center Grand Rounds screensh
Thus, the idea was formed to build this online community where there could be more immersive, virtual conferences. In addition to listening to lectures, Dr. Rosenberg said you can move your avatar (with a joystick) to an area to chat with other people who might be standing there, there can be an exhibit hall where you can interact with representatives, and more.
Dr. Rosenberg described the difference between experiencing a meeting on your computer (2D) versus with virtual reality technology in the metaverse (3D) as seeing a picture of a flower (2D) and being able to walk around the flower (3D).
The Westchester Medical Center Grand Rounds, which took place in June, had a lecture hall, allowed conversations with individuals sitting next to you, and allowed avatars to walk up to lecturers after their presentations. It’s more authentically replicating an in-person meeting in a virtual environment, Dr. Rosenberg said.
Savannah Kumar, a fourth-year medical student, and Abha Amin, MD, gave one of the presentations within this metaverse environment. They said in some ways it was very different, while in others it was very similar. Ms. Kumar said first, they had to learn the platform, how to walk around in it, how to get up on stage, and how to, as Dr. Amin said, make their grand finale exit off stage in a virtual helicopter. Even with the learning curve, both Dr. Amin and Ms. Kumar said it added an exciting element that made it different from preparing for a Zoom talk or even an in-person grand rounds.
While the event was taking place, Ms. Kumar said it was “surreal” because you could see so many different faces and you could walk up to people (avatars) in the same way that you would in person.
“It was exciting. It feels like being in a real grand rounds where you walk into your conference room, you see everyone in the room, and you walk up to certain people,” Ms. Kumar said.
Dr. Amin said she had a quiet side conversation with a colleague who was sitting next to her during a presentation, “just like we would have in person.”
Dr. Rosenberg said the hope is to hold grand rounds and DOS meetings in the metaverse frequently. While you can attend future Westchester Medical Center Grand Rounds on a regular computer, like you would normally attend a virtual meeting, if you have certain equipment (a virtual reality headset, joystick to move your avatar), you can experience the more immersive experience.
“Education should be priority number 1 for all of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re in private practice or academia,” he said. “Making the generations that follow better than us should always be our priority because that makes our patients profession grow. I thought the best initial applicability for using this technology would be a grand rounds.”
In terms of other applications for ophthalmology, Dr. Rosenberg said medicine needs to leverage technology to further develop the field, and that does not necessarily mean creating carbon copies of what’s previously been done.
“This metaverse is carbon copying what we do at meetings, but what else can we do that we’re not?” Dr. Rosenberg said. He said that the team is currently building a company, MetaMed Media, around the metaverse platform so others who want to create something don’t need to reinvent the wheel. “Additionally, we want to leverage our skills to build something that is interesting, innovative, and will continue changing the face of ophthalmology.”
From a medical education standpoint, Ms. Kumar said she thinks this type of technology could be more commonly used within the next year or two. Dr. Amin said she hopes that in the future, people will be able to use their own facial expressions within the metaverse instead of an avatar, which she thinks would make it even more authentic.