After first donning a virtual reality headset, a common reaction is rampant speculation. What use could this technology have beyond mere entertainment?

One of the fields many are experimenting with is medical. Medical uses for virtual reality fall into two broad categories: 1. as a training aid or visualizer prior to an invasive procedure; and 2. as a treatment or therapy device for a patient.

Medical use cases of VR are analogous to use cases of 3D printing. For example, some surgeons will print 3D models of patient-specific anatomy prior to surgery. A surgeon can then practice on the printed model, attempting to maneuver a catheter through a splenic artery, for example. The 3D representation of the anatomy acts as a training aid, which is what a number of different medical startups are attempting to recreate in a VR headset.

A great example of the potential VR holds for the medical field is actually located within a video game created by Valve, called “The Lab.” The Lab was shipped with the HTC Vive and showcases some of the technical features of the headset. There are a number of smaller experiences in the game, one of which shows the user a CT scan of a human at real scale. The user can then slice the scan up in arbitrary sections to explore different internal regions of the body.

Beyond its use as a training tool or visualizer, therapeutic applications of VR are showing signs of promise. Because VR allows the user to experience a scene, rather than just watch it, any kind of therapy that requires a particular kind of immersive experience could be provided via a VR device.

For example, a number of studies are pointing to the reduction of phantom pain in amputees by showing a fake limb to the user that they can control. Others are investigating the use of VR for exposure therapy to help cure clinically significant phobias.

On the patent side of things, a cursory review of newly-filed patent applications reveals that the number of applications disclosing VR uses in the medical field is surprisingly low. I speculate that there are three main reasons for the lack of new patent applications in this arena.

First, the use of VR in a medical context was pioneered in 90s. This treatment is prior art against any new filings and is probably suppressing some movement in the area.

Second, the Supreme Court has been hostile to patents covering patient-specific medical care. In particular, the decisions in Mayo and Alice have increased the difficultly of obtaining a patent in this particular area. This may have a deterring effect on new filings, increasing prosecution costs.

Third, it may be that the use cases are simply not fleshed out to the extent they need to be. Many references to VR treatments and training are experimental, one-off, or small-scale experiments. As the technology matures and more people get their hands on a headset, it may be that we will see continuing and increased innovation.

Regardless, it appears that VR treatment and training is being experimented with by a large number of companies and individuals. The technology holds great promise to improve patient outcomes, decrease risk during surgery and treat psychological diseases. Even with a number of hurdles remaining, we will certainly see virtual reality being used in some fashion in the medical field for the foreseeable future.