Kai Worrell believes that virtual and mixed reality may change the way companies design medical devices, and he’s putting that idea into practice.
“We think it’s going to transform the way we do feasibility testing and cognitive walk-through simulations,” he said. “We think it’s going to help us understand the cognition of our users, clinical and the families that we’re serving.”
When a pharmaceutical company approached his design firm, Worrell, about a product for patients with multiple sclerosis, the company used virtual reality to get a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live with the physically debilitating disease.
“We actually put 360 cameras onto a woman in Philadelphia with multiple sclerosis. She was wearing a tiny box on her chest and we asked her to do a bunch of very simple tasks – cut some vegetables, walk around. We got to see her leg drop, we got to see the motion disorder,” Worrell explained last week at the annual Drug Delivery Partnerships conference in Florida.
Worrell has worked with a number of medical device giants, including Medtronic (NYSE: MDT), Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), designing products that he said are entirely patient-focused.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality
Virtual reality is a phrase that garners a lot of attention in the tech world. Between Facebook‘s (NSDQ:FB) Oculus Rift and Samsung‘s (KRX:005935) Gear VR, virtual reality is a seemingly science-fiction piece of technology that’s already hit the market.
There are distinct differences between virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Virtual reality most often refers to a deeply immersive experience, where the user wears a headset that projects an artificial world or image. Virtual reality technology uses highly reactive sensors so that when users turn their heads or walk around, the image moves with them in the same way that it would in real time.
Technologies that provide augmented reality, like Google (NSDQ:GOOGL) Glass, are different. Instead of providing an immersive, alternative world, augmented reality overlays digital information on the user’s view of the real world. For example, glasses that feature augmented reality would allow a user’s text messages to appear directly in their line of vision.
Mixed reality is a combination of virtual and augmented reality. In theory, mixed reality enables the user to see the real world and virtual objects at the same time.
Cultivating empathy through understanding
All of these new technologies, Worrell argued, have the potential to help companies better understand their target patient population’s needs.
The motivation behind integrating virtual and mixed reality into device design began with the desire to get closer to the user and impact usability, he said. Virtual reality can provide insight into what patients experience when they’re at home, using the device in their everyday lives.
“You want to show the whole drug delivery team what it’s like to be in a home with low light conditions, the distractions, the cat that’s jumping off the top of the refrigerator when they’re supposed to be using their device,” he said.
The design firm’s team uses the footage they collect from patients’ homes and clinical settings to bring a deeper level of empathy to developers, Worrell said, and the results are disruptive.
Breathing new life into usability tests
Worrell’s team works in more than 500 hospitals, he said, and more than 1,000 different healthcare providers are enrolled in their human factor studies each year. Usability studies are not a new concept – companies use focus groups to take human use into account when they’re designing a product– but he argued that they are not enough.
“You’ve done some focus groups, maybe you’ve done a usability test? Everybody’s done it. These places are uninspired, faceless place to live, you do not want to get caught there,” he explained.
When pilots are trained to fly to a plane, Worrell said, they are tested using simulations that mimic the reality of flying a plane. He argued that companies should employ the same tactic to understand potential usability problems.
“If you’re getting good at something, you create innovative test methods to give you an idea of how to anticipate usability risk. We’re actually putting this on the goggles and we glue 2 sensors in the devices, and we can go through this process and augment the reality around someone and look for usability risk,” he said.
Not only could this technology change the way companies think about usability risk, but it could be used as a low risk tool to train patients to use a device. Worrell suggested that the process of learning how to use something as simple as an auto-injector could be enhanced with a virtual reality training tool.
Whether it’s device design, usability or training, Worrell seems to believe that virtual, mixed and augmented reality could change the way companies operate.
“We’re getting close to the patients, we’re doing better at our studies, we’re actually getting devices cleared through the FDA and we’re learning things a lot faster, because we’re addressing some of those risks and those key safety issues,” he said.