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Augmented Reality – What Is It And How Does It Work?

Augmented Reality in Healthcare Delivery
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Augmented Reality in Healthcare Delivery

Augmented reality is a relatively new technology that has recently made great strides. Simply put, augmented reality manipulates one’s perception of reality through the use of either a computer, a wearable device, or a handheld device. Augmented reality is classified as a part of mediated reality, which includes other similar technologies, such as virtual reality (VR).

Here are, however, several important differences between VR and augmented reality. Unlike VR, augmented reality does not completely replace the user’s actual environment. Rather, augmented reality enhances a view of the user’s true surroundings with information, graphics, and sound. While VR applications create an entirely new world in which to learn, play, or relax, augmented reality uses the real world as a base upon which to add or manipulate elements.

History of Augmented Reality

Augmented reality can, in fact, be said to have existed for decades, although in a primitive form. Even something so simple as the current time displayed on a video camera screen is technically an example of augmented reality. Of course, AR applications have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, especially with the advent of smartphones.

Google Translate’s mobile application, for example, now has a feature that allows a user to point the phone’s camera at written text, such as a sign or document, and receive an instant automatic on-screen translation into the user’s designated language. This application can obviously be extremely useful to students and tourists, as well as for a wide range of other purposes.

Modern AR was arguably first introduced in 2009 with SixthSense, developed by MIT Media Lab. This technology was a wearable application that could project information on any flat surface in front of the user. Also in 2009, a Dutch company presented the Layar application, which adds digital content to compatible physical print media scanned with a smartphone.

One of the most popular recent incarnations of augmented reality technology is Pokémon Go. This smartphone game overlays virtual creatures onto users’ actual surroundings. Using GPS positioning, players hunt and capture the creatures. Pokémon Go has become a huge phenomenon that has attracted players from around the world.

A very recent use of augmented reality can be seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts with an application called Lumen that brings ancient art and history to life. Visitors can take a guided tour using the application on a rented smartphone. Lumen overlays enhancements and information on the actual exhibits, showing, for example, an X-ray view of an Egyptian mummy or adding color to long-faded paintings.

Future of Augmented Reality

Although dazzling, current use of augmented reality in smartphones is often limited by their screen size. Since most have dimensions of only a few inches, the user’s view can feel very restricted. While there have been efforts to improve this with wearable products like the aborted Google Glass, some innovators have suggested helmets or contact lenses instead.

Such a hands-free interface has almost limitless potential for a variety of professions, including healthcare. Clinicians, nursing staff, technicians, first responders, and surgeons could all greatly benefit from real-time patient data overlaid on their real-world view. The use of glasses or contact lenses would provide a heads-up display (HUD) that would eliminate the need for practitioners to check other machines or documents for information and allow them to keep their attention focused on the patient.

It is difficult to overstate the potential utility of such a system. The improvements could go much further than simply having vital signs or an EKG readout hovering above a view of the patient. Medical history, demographic information, current medications, and more could all be instantly available and accessible, increasing the efficiency and accuracy of healthcare providers. Healthcare infused with such augmented reality applications may make for a very bright future indeed.

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