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Mixed Reality (MR) in Medicine

Mixed reality (MR) is a technology that combines elements of both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to create a unique and immersive experience. MR is sometimes also referred to as hybrid reality.

Unlike VR, which immerses the user in a completely virtual world, and AR, which overlays virtual elements on top of the real world, MR combines elements of both technologies to create a seamless experience in which virtual and real-world objects coexist and interact with each other in real-time.

One way to understand the difference between AR, VR, and MR is to think of them as points on a spectrum, with AR representing the most real-world-focused end, VR representing the most virtual-world-focused end, and MR sitting somewhere in between, blending the two. You can read more about AR, VR and MR here.

As compared to AR and VR, MR technology is kind of new. However, it is already being used in a variety of industries, and its potential for creating immersive and engaging experiences continues to be explored and developed. Let us briefly see how MR can be useful in the medical field.

MR in Medicine
One of the key advantages of MR in medicine is that it allows medical professionals to visualize and interact with virtual representations of anatomical structures in a way that is much more immersive and intuitive than traditional 2D imaging methods like X-rays or CT scans. This can be particularly useful in surgical planning, where MR can be used to create 3D models of a patient's organs or other structures that can be manipulated and explored in real-time. As far as newbie doctors and students are concerned, they can use an MR headset to interact with virtual representations of organs and other anatomy, while still being able to see and feel their real-world surroundings. It can also be used to create immersive simulations for medical training and education, allowing students to practice procedures and techniques in a safe and controlled environment. Going forward, a surgeon wearing an MR headset could use hand gestures or voice commands to manipulate a virtual model of a patient's heart, allowing them to explore different surgical approaches and better plan their procedure before ever making an incision.

Apart from training, here are a few instances related to healthcare and medicine where MR can help:
  • Telemedicine: MR can be used to enhance telemedicine experiences, allowing healthcare providers to interact with patients in a more immersive way. For example, an MR headset could be used to give a remote consultation with a patient where the healthcare provider could view the patient's medical records, visualize the patient's anatomy in 3D, and interact with virtual medical devices to demonstrate medical procedures.
  • Rehabilitation: MR can be used to create immersive rehabilitation experiences for patients. For example, an MR headset could be used to simulate an environment where a patient could practice their physical therapy exercises, such as walking on a virtual beach or climbing virtual stairs. This can help make rehabilitation more engaging and motivating for patients.
  • Mental health: MR can be used to create immersive experiences for patients with mental health conditions, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For such patients, an MR headset could be used to simulate exposure therapy, where patients would be gradually exposed to triggers in a virtual environment to help them overcome their fears and anxieties.

Experiencing MR
By now, you would have realized that the most salient feature of MR is an ‘immersive experience’. Indeed, to experience MR realistically, you need both - proper software and proper hardware.

Lets deal with the hardware first. MR is typically experienced with a headset or other display device that can overlay digital objects onto the real world. MR headsets work by tracking a user's location and movements, and then mapping this information with his or her surroundings in order to create realistic experiences. Sound and vision complete the picture, though vision is generally more important than sound as far as the medical field is concerned. Realizing the potential of MR – not only in medicine but other fields like gaming and education - most major companies like Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, Asus and a whole bunch of other manufacturers have started producing MR headsets.

MR Software
Developing MR software is complicated as it typically involves the use of several different technologies to create a seamless and immersive experience that are overlaid onto the real world. This includes software for creating 3D models, animations, and simulations, as well as software for controlling the user interface and interactions with the digital objects. This is the reason MR applications requires a team of software engineers, designers, and content creators who work together to create the virtual content and user interfaces that make up the MR experience. While someone from the medical field may have a good understanding of the clinical applications of MR, it is unlikely that they would be able to develop MR applications without some training or experience in software development. Developing MR applications typically requires expertise in programming languages such as C#, C++, and Unity, as well as knowledge of 3D modelling, animation, and other design tools. Companies that provide MR development services fill this gap. They have the experience to develop MR software, and can interact with the medical professionals to understand their exact needs and develop a tailor-made MR app for them.

That being said, there are some low-code or no-code platforms that allow users to create simple MR applications without requiring extensive programming skills. However, for more complex and professional MR applications, it is still necessary to have a team of experienced developers.

MR can make a positive impact in the medical sector, especially in training. Rich MR experiences include good software and good hardware. In countries like India, where the reach of medical care is still not enough, AR, VR and MR have the potential to make a significant difference for the better. The growing number of companies in India that provide MR services to develop custom MR applications is a testimonial to this.