While Virtual Reality (VR) has been around for many years, it has only recently reached the maturity to powerfully compliment product design and engineering activities. Integrating its use into healthcare product development has the potential to deliver significant benefits to both the process and its outcomes.

What is Immersive Reality?

As one of several Immersive Reality (IR) approaches, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) defines Virtual Reality (VR) as putting the user into a totally digital environment that replaces his or her physical environment.

On somewhat of the opposite end of the IR spectrum, Mixed Reality (MR) seamlessly blends the real and virtual worlds with the aim to blur the distinction between physical and virtual as much as possible. For example, MR virtual objects are blocked from view when real objects pass in front of them but not when the real objects pass behind.

Augmented Reality (AR) is generated by overlaying digitally created content on the user’s view of the physical environment; unlike MR, virtual AR objects do not necessarily understand their “place” in the real world.

Currently, VR is the more established and widespread technology due to the unique technical challenges associated with AR and MR. However, it is anticipated that AR and MR will supersede VR in coming years where engineering applications are concerned.

Immersive Reality at Invetech

To realize the potential of IR, the Immersive Reality Group (IRG) was formed at Invetech earlier this year. The mission of this multidisciplinary team is to explore potential value-added IR applications by adapting and customizing currently available IR hardware and software.

Virtual Reality experience at the 2018 AACC Invetech booth

One of the IRG outputs was an in-booth VR space featured at this year’s AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo. Several different virtual experiences were provided for attendees, from walking through a product gallery of photorealistic instrument models to being miniaturized and exploring the workings of an instrument from the inside. The product gallery allowed users to interact with consumables and instruments in a unique and engaging way, opening discussions around the potential uses of IR in product development and decision making.

Leveraging immersive technologies for product development

Leveraging Immersive Reality for product development can be powerful for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Facilitating communication of complex ideas. When something is displayed within an IR environment, there generally is no interpretation required for viewers to understand what they are seeing. Objects are simply “there”, as they would be in a physical setting. Translating 2D images (such as computer CAD) into 3D IR models helps in the visualization of what something will actually look like in its material form.
  • Speeding up prototyping. Rapid prototyping by creating foam core models or 3D printing has proven to be a valuable approach in the product development process; however, these techniques still require manufacturing time along with a cost, and the models are not always fully functional. Using IR prototypes allows for iterations and variants to be created almost immediately and include complex functionality.
  • Enhancing client engagement. Nothing can totally replace the benefits of face-to-face meetings. Video conferencing has become standard practice in project management as one means of bridging geographical divides. With IR, there is increased flexibility and freedom for client and product development teams to focus on instrument details to a degree not possible within the constraints of static images or 2D video.
Loading consumables in Virtual Reality to experience an instrument workflow

Exploring the potential of Immersive Reality

The Invetech IRG has been focused on streamlining the process of transforming computer CAD into photorealistic, interactive models within a virtual environment. Leveraging several off-the-shelf tools, the team has developed a hybrid approach incorporating these programs with custom software written in gaming engines such as Unreal and Unity. This has resulted in high quality outputs with an almost unlimited degree of flexibility and interactivity. Having reached this level of sophistication, Invetech has begun exploring the use of the hybrid VR platform as part of its product development with a few current clients.

As the technology continues to advance, Invetech is investigating how IR and its ability to communicate complex ideas and concepts to a broad audience can be further leveraged in the design and development process. For example, while physical models are still the better option to convey attributes such as weight and texture, it is anticipated that AR will soon be able to track simple physical models and overlay them with features such as different color schemes, button layouts and GUI workflows.

Future product development applications could include:

  • Experience design research insights and usability testing. IR has potential as an enhanced information capture tool compared to standard videography used to film interactions with an instrument in the context of use. It also could provide a means to trial virtual models during preliminary usability testing.
Exploring the architectural detail of an instrument from the inside
  • Product development decision making. Greater visibility into product form and design details with IR could be used to inform more subjective decisions earlier in the process. Design concept directions for user touch points, color selection, instrument styling and surface finish preferences could be finalized more quickly and with less cost. Additionally, IR could be a tool to support remote technical reviews, architectural visualizations and mechanical solutions assessments and trade-offs.
  • Design for manufacturing. By design and production engineers using IR to trial assembly approaches early in the product development process, the ease of manufacturing an instrument can potentially be optimized prior to reaching a physical stage.

As the cost and user experience of IR technology improve, it is expected to become a routine aspect of everyday life. The July 2016 release of Pokémon Go is a perfect example of how a single AR app can make a huge impact, having been downloaded over 500 million times before the end of that year and popularizing AR technology.It’s very conceivable that in the not too distant future smartphones will be replaced by AR/MR glasses; imagine seeing map directions overlaying your surroundings as you ride your bike or drive your car.

This level of IR consumer adoption is expected to be mirrored in all facets of business and the economy. Healthcare products and services are particularly suited to leverage the benefits, starting with product development through to healthcare delivery itself. The potential applications of IR are unlimited.