Monday, January 26, 2015

The Internet of (Virtual) Things

There has been a lot of buzz about the so-called Internet of Things, which tech gurus like Cisco CEO John Chambers have pegged as a potential $19 trillion market.  You know, a world where everything is connected -- e.g., your car talks to your house, which talks to your refrigerator, which updates the grocery list on your smartphone.  And, of course, we'll all be wearing sensors that track and report our activity and our vitals.

That may all happen, but we may also be paying more attention to things that aren't really there  -- through virtual reality.

It seems like much has happened in virtual reality over the past few months, one of the most notable of which was Facebook putting a price on it through its $2b purchase of tiny Oculus.  Last week Microsoft may have kept itself relevant for the next decade by its announcement of HoloLens, which it describes as "holographic computing" but everyone else is calling virtual reality.

Reviewers who got to try out HoloLens wrote about not just the kinds of experiences one might expect in VR -- like being on Mars or playing Minecraft -- but also overlaying virtual images into the "real world."  For example, using Skype to have a virtually present expert walk a user through changing a light switch, complete with visible pointers and as-needed instructions.

CNET used these examples to contrast HoloLens with Oculus Rift, pointing out that the latter tricks your eyes and mind into thinking you are someplace else, but HoloLens augments the reality you are actually in.  That's a difference between gaming and real life, and it opens up lots of possibilities for when/how one might use virtual reality.

The news and entertainment world is already starting to realize the potential of virtual reality.  Vice News has unveiled a service called Vrze, who hopes to immerse viewers directly into coverage of news stories.  This year's Sundance Film Festival was dominated but by VR efforts such as Birdly, which let viewers experience the world literally through a bird's eye view.  This isn't 3-D trying to win over 2-D efforts; this is potentially a true changing of the guard, like talkies replacing silent films or television relegating radio to an also-run media.

Moviegoers never quite cottoned to wearing those 3-D glasses, and many of us don't relish wearing some clunky VR set-up either, but suddenly Google Glass starts to make a lot more sense (even though Google just pulled its consumer version off the market...for now).  Google has another, cheaper VR solution in the works already -- Cardboard.  As Patrick Buckley, CEO of DODOcase, told NBC News:
Where we are in the whole VR space, consumers need a Model T Ford, they don't need a Lamborghini.  There are 2 billion smartphones in the world that are basically VR devices, and consumers don't realize it.
Meanwhile, Mozilla is trying to bring the VR experience to the browser, further illustrating that we're not as far from using existing kinds of technology to take us to new virtual places.

Right now we're replete with technological options; lots of screens, lots of computing power, lots of keyboards.  The smartphone has gobbled up many functions, including phone, camera, music player, entertainment center, and Internet browser, but we still also have PCs, laptops, tablets, phablets, 2-in-1 computers, various trackers, and standalone gaming consoles like Xbox or Playstation.

My take is that virtual reality will wipe those distinctions away.

We're at a technological point not dissimilar to the 1990s, when we were still walking around with cell phones, music players, cameras, a handheld gaming consoles, maybe a pager or a Blackberry.  It seems archaic now, maybe even a little foolish, with all those subsumed in our smartphones.  In five or ten years the multiple devices that we now use may seem ridiculous as well.

You can already buy a laser projection virtual keyboard, so you don't have to fiddle with the tiny virtual keyboard on your smartphone or tablet.  There are already virtual touchscreens, such as those offered by Displair, that can literally create the screen out of thin air.  If you can have your screen and your keyboard projected anywhere and of any size you want, what do you care what the underlying device is?

So I ask: why would we use multiple devices?  You'll need something with an Internet connection, and at least some modest computing power, but those don't have to come from something we'd recognize as a smartphone or computer.

Indeed, our clothes may be our "device," and anything we're now doing on one of our various devices will get streamed from the cloud and projected for us using virtual reality.  I've said before that apps seem like a very clunky technological solution that will get superseded by a simpler, more consolidated approach, and I'm similarly saying that our devices will go the same way.

That's the kind of thing that virtual reality will be able to do for us.

So what does all this have to do with health care?  Plenty.  Respected experts like Eric Topol have proclaimed that The Future of Medicine Is in Your Smartphone, and it won't be long before whatever we can do (or want to do) on a smartphone, we will be able to do in VR.

We're already seeing virtual reality being used to train physicians (e.g., surgical or other procedures) and even for PT/rehab.  If I was WebMD or any of the other health content providers I'd be rapidly retooling my patient education materials to include VR; why read a paragraph or watch a video when you can see the problem and its treatments in VR?

The other obvious use for VR is in telemedicine.  Instead of a video chat between a provider and patient, the consultation could take place in a virtual exam room, or in the patient's augmented living room, for that matter.  Think of the HoloLens demo where the expert guided the user to replace a light switch, and imagine the possibilities for patient education and treatment.  All those remote monitoring and smartphone-based diagnostic options that Dr. Topol evangelizes about should still be available in VR, giving the patient and the clinician a powerful set of tools to work with.  

You can bet that Microsoft is furiously working to upgrade Skype to try to be the preeminent VR tool.

With virtual reality, we have to recognize that interactions will be different, the concept of place will be different, and what we can do with and for information will be different.  It will require new approaches and new flexibility, and I suspect most organizations are already behind the curve.

I've previously discussed my fondness for holographic medical records and virtual assistants, and, as a result, I've gotten some teasing for the Star Trek-like similarities (e.g., TNG's holodeck or  Voyager's virtual doctor).  The future almost never happens in quite the way we predict, but that doesn't mean we're still not going to be amazed...and with VR it is happening now.

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