Immersive Technologies in Medical Device Development: Today and Tomorrow
Medical device designers have a new research tool in their arsenal that facilitates faster immersion for the development team and provides a communication platform to bring patients and healthcare professionals into the development process. Even with the evolution of 3D printing technology, we still find ourselves attempting to engage in abstract theoretical discussions and thought experiments at various points throughout development. Technologies like augmented and virtual reality replace the abstract with immersive experiences.
On each project, human-centric design researchers must quickly become experts in both device technology and the medical condition being treated. The exploratory phase of the design process often begins with the need to understand an existing product, its use environment, and the impact of the user’s ability to perform tasks successfully and safely. We participate in ethnographic research and design reviews, watch videos, read specifications, speak with experts, hear first person narratives and document observations.
While these research activities can be incredibly informative, the documented results often end up in static reports that, at best, provide images and video links, leaving us limited to some extent by our imaginations, our empathy, and our ability to visualize the abstract. Immersive technology helps to overcome these limitations. Contextual research can serve as the basis for a simulated first-person perspective, allowing developers to become the person living with a challenging disease state and interact with the world the way a patient would – say with impaired vision, shaking hands, and reduced mobility. Meanwhile, a virtual model can allow us to insert ourselves inside a device, or to view component interactions from another perspective, allowing us to quickly understand our starting point and identify options for improvement.
As soon as a concept can be prototyped, the research team often puts physical models in front of patients and health care professionals to get feedback, allowing for informed design iteration throughout the development process. Again, this research activity is incredibly valuable, but even with rapid prototyping the end user sees snapshots of points in development. Immersive technology presents the opportunity to make the process more continuous. End users can interact with virtual prototypes very early on, allowing them to enter the feedback loop earlier and in a more integrated fashion, resulting in quicker evaluation of a larger range of options and features. Likewise, the research team can continue to use first-person simulators to interact with concepts from the end user perspective allowing faster identification of features that must be optimized for use say by a doctor wearing protective equipment or a patient with impaired vision.
The ability to create an immersive experience accessible by all team members throughout the process connects research and development teams with their end users in ways that have never been possible before. It is hard to say which is more enticing: allowing engineers to experience devices from the perspective of end users, or allowing the end user to configure an optimized virtual device in real time. In the immersive environment, we don’t have to choose—these opportunities can happen side-by-side.