It’s not very often that you come across a story along the lines of ‘the lame shall walk’ outside of biblical scripture, but in August 2016 Duke University announced results from their Walk Again Project.
After two years of treatment using a mixture of virtual reality (VR) - Oculus’ Development Kit - and robotics, patients saw miraculous improvement, with some previously diagnosed as having complete paralysis being reclassified as partially paralysed.
Dr Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Duke University Centre for Neuroengineering explained that using VR, the patients’ brains had been coerced into rebuilding connections with the few nerves in the lower body which had survived injury.
Whether because of the lack of glamour or childish embarrassment, the majority of news headlines focused on the improvement of mobility, however none of the patients have yet recovered the ability to walk unassisted.
Buried towards the end of many of the stories and omitted from others was the news that all patients regained some bowel control, and in the cases of the male subjects some saw partial sexual response return.
It’s impossible to overstate what a change in quality of life control over basic bodily functions can have for an individual, and should these trials be repeatable every clinic in the world will want access to the treatment.
This kind of usage of VR is slowly becoming recognised; in the June 2016 Context VR Consumer Survey, an average of 3.9 per cent of respondents from the general public in the EU thought that VR could potentially transform medicine.
There are multiple important calls to action here for both vendors and the channel.
In the case of Oculus, treatments such as the Walk Again Project highlight the importance of head mounted displays (HMDs) for commercial use which are affordable, of a professional quality, and most importantly work on an open platform.
Several academics have acknowledged this including Dr Andrew Glennerster from the University of Reading who writes: “A side benefit of this is that companies such as Oculus and Raser have adopted an open-source software (and hardware) model, which will allow researchers the freedom they need for scientific research” (*see footnote).
There is even an opportunity here for a division of VR products into consumer and commercial, the latter retaining easy customisation and development by third parties.
In the case of the channel, distributors and resellers with customers within health trusts and universities should be educating partners on the potential applications of HMDs, and also need to be making products like the Oculus Rift easily available.
Once treatments such as those piloted by the Walk Again Project become widely accessible and known it is likely that there would be massive demand, and the channel is uniquely placed to provide that technology to healthcare institutions.
Many distributors might argue that it is too soon to be building this customer base, but what starts off as a handful of units could snowball into mass adoption in coming years.
* Footnote: Peter Scarfe & Andrew Glennester: "Using high-fidelity virtual reality to study perception in freely moving observers.” Journal of Vision (2015) 15(9):3, 1–11
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