Sarah Ticho, founder of Hatsumi, is working with Immerse UK to develop a free event bringing together artists, clinicians, academics and people with lived experience of disability and mental health conditions to explore the future of immersive healthcare. Immersive Technologies for Healthcare is taking place on Monday 19 November at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Savoy Place, London. She shares her thoughts on the current challenges and opportunities for development within this emerging industry, and why we are running the event.

The rise in immersive technologies in recent years cannot be ignored. Immersive technologies encompass Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR) – and probably some other Rs we haven’t even heard of yet.  What is most exciting about this nascent technology, is the sheer diversity and almost limitless applications across creative arts, film and theatre, gaming, architecture and beyond.

It is only within the past few years that VR has become a mainstream phenomenon, with more accessible devices being launched in quick succession. However, despite the inflated projections by entrepreneurs and cultural forecasters alike that we are destined towards a future akin to Ready Player One – a complete virtual revolution hasn’t quite happened yet. However, hidden from the public eye – inside academic departments, hospitals and the co-working spaces and bedrooms of startup founders – a healthcare movement has been building.

The application of immersive technologies in health is not a new one. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a rapid proliferation in VR technologies applied to health and psychology. Specifically, VR has been used as a tool to help deliver new forms of therapy, from exposure therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to physical therapy and rehabilitation, pain management and stress reduction. VR also offers unprecedented opportunities for interactive training, simulations that allow students to replicate surgical procedures, and research within controlled environments.

Before founding my own VR healthcare startup, I spoke to other founders and practitioners and was surprised to hear the recurring issues that arose: some had put their projects through clinical trials proving their value and impact, yet continue to struggle to convince investors and larger companies that it’s not a gimmick. Even when people had begun to buy in, getting VR into hospitals in the UK has proven nearly impossible for most.

In addition, running a startup that works closely with academia can be in conflict with business timelines, as academic rigour often requires years for studies. Other founders have since moved their businesses to other European countries or the US where they’ve found faster, easier routes into the healthcare system, after the doors didn’t open here.

Given the NHS’s £30 billion funding gap, NHS England has identified harnessing technology as one solution in its Five Year Forward View. Organisations such as Innovate UK are also supporting pioneering immersive technologies, encouraging and funding collaborations between SMEs and academic organisations – and Immerse UK offers businesses support beyond this R&D process too. However, for many reasons, the dawn of mass adoption is still a long way off – and perhaps it should stay that way for now.

Clinical trials confirm that VR should now be considered as a new form of ‘virtual medicine,’ or ‘digital therapeutics.’ These are defined by the Digital Therapeutics Alliance as “a new generation of healthcare that uses innovative, clinically-validated disease management and direct treatment applications to enhance, and in some cases replace, current medical practices and treatments.” VR applications such as those developed by Dr. Brennan Speigel at Cedars Sinai (who is also the founder of Virtual Medicine) have been able to demonstrate a reduction in chronic pain by up to 24% in patients. However, beyond clinical trials within hospitals and academic environments, there is a lack of structure and framework to define quality assurance and patient protection when taking participants through immersive technology treatment.

Even though there are a handful of communities, conferences and associations which provide support and share best practice on development, there is no formal regulation of the immersive health tech market, unless it qualifies as a Software as a Medical Device (SaMD). However, there are no specific guidelines in place for immersive technologies. The long term effects of virtual reality on us are largely unknown, and outside of academic contexts there is no ethical clearance or approval on newly developed works. Artist Mark Farid has been developing Seeing I, where he has been training to live in virtual reality for 28 days, but cannot obtain ethical approval for a clinical study to accompany this. This wasn’t out of concern for his psychological wellbeing (although it is being considered), but due to the potential damage to his eyes. Yet beyond those few individuals who volunteer to put themselves in rather extreme testing circumstances, how do we ensure the psychological safety of users?

Other problems in the industry and innovation more broadly include the representation of practitioners leading in their field.  There are large gaps in innovation rates by parental income, gender, and race that are partly caused by differences in exposure to innovation during childhood. Whilst official data on representation in the immersive healthcare industry is limited, from my own experience of being part of the community, I have noticed a lack of diversity across gender, LGBTQ, People of Colour, economic background and lived experience of disability and mental health conditions.

Immersive technology is an industry defined by its interdisciplinary applications, yet even within the immersive healthcare industry the community is segregated. How do we ensure that work developed is created with academic rigour, clinical underpinnings and delivered with artistic flair? Getting people to engage with their health and wellbeing is often already difficult, so offering the opportunity to use something that is engaging is surely of value when examining the impact and outcomes of emergent applications.

Our Immersive Technologies for Healthcare event in November will bring together a diverse community  across, arts, health and academia, providing a rare opportunity for us to take a pause and discuss the future of this emerging industry. Join us for an interactive day of stories from the trenches, punctuated by opportunities for attendees to try a variety of demos, connect with others and hear pitches by new start-ups building the future of healthcare.  The day will conclude with critical audience debate exploring what is on the horizon for the immersive health community, as well as what needs are not being met, in the hope that we can create an effective, equal and engaging future for virtual health.

Registration for Immersive Technologies for Healthcare is now open. It is free to attend, but as places are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, early registration is recommended. Find out more and register