A fake world, an unreality where our surroundings appear and move not according to nature’s laws, but the whims of our impulses. Out of every setting known to humankind there has been only one place capable of housing such fantasies: our imagination; at least, until very recently. Virtual reality has extended imagination’s reach, blurring the barrier between things impossible, and things inevitable. VR tech has now advanced to the point where it can convincingly fool our senses into recognizing as “real” whatever false environment we feel like projecting.
A boundless virtual plane might appear irresponsible to some. But that’s not the case for the numerous soon-to-be doctors who use VR as a safe way to practice surgical technique. For these surgeons in training, virtual reality provides a consequence-free proving ground, an invaluable resource for people who will soon be called to stitch up others’ lives for the rest of their own.
Trainees engage in surgical simulation training, which involves performing mock operations on computer-made simulations of disease and injury. By creating an arena where the cost of failing a surgery is simply the time it takes to try again, VR training has been shown to enhance surgeons’ accuracy and technical skill in the field. Simulated surgeries are particularly effective at teaching keyhole surgeries — minimally invasive surgical procedures which rely on video for visual feedback. Dr. Neil Martin, chairman of the University of California (Los Angeles)’s neurosurgery department, gives a practical example of VR’s teaching potential:
“It’s just amazing to see every little opening in the skull where a nerve goes through…On the image, I can see the carotid artery going through the margin of the tumor…Rather than have that all of a sudden appear as I’m removing tumor, I’ll know exactly when I’m going to encounter it…That is a big improvement.”
Recent research has tangibly demonstrated VR’s aptitude as a training tool. One study, which examined 16 surgeon’s effectiveness at performing gallbladder operations, showed that surgeons who trained using VR techniques were six times less likely to cause injury than non-VR trained peers; also, simulation trainees performed the procedure 29% faster on average.
A surgeon’s typical training regimen involves apprenticeship, in which they accompany a senior staff member on surgeries in order to observe and learn technique. Traditional technique practice is carried out on cadavers, or animals; while these methods are effective, they also carry a steep price tag. Prices for VR training vary based on equipment sophistication, ranging anywhere from $5 to as much as $200,000. It is likely, however, that VR’s price will plummet as sophisticated advancements in VR’s capability continue their transition into mainstream life.