This conference was conceived in 1991 when a small group of individuals envisioned how virtual reality, then in its first era of widespread enthusiasm, might transform medicine by immersing physicians, students, and patients in data more completely.
They predicted that interactive learning tools might better engage medical students by assessing real-time performance and customizing lessons in sync. Simulation could enhance the “see one, do one, teach one” model with the repetition that athletes and musicians used to perfect their skills. After training on simulators, novice caregivers could tend to their first patients with expertise they'd gained from making many previous errors that did no harm.
In addition, they imagined that visualizing patient data in 3D and 4D would give physicians the power to diagnose more accurately and strategize more precise therapies. Tissues, organs, and systems would be color coded, highlighted, and viewed in motion from multiple angles, revealing previously hidden features and relationships. Computers would join the clinical team.
Psychotherapy presented yet another promising application for VR. Within controlled virtual environments, patients might revisit traumatic experiences or confront phobias. Images would arouse emotions more intensely than words, possibly resulting in more complete healing. And, from pain management to Parkinson's, VR also gave researchers hope as a new tool to aid physical rehabilitation.
Although the VR boom of the early '90s faded when technical obstacles repeatedly delayed progress, researchers who understood the technology's potential kept working. Medical applications improved slowly and steadily; obstacles were overcome with much creativity and little fanfare. This volume, like its predecessors, is the product of these researchers' lasting commitment to better patient care and medical education.
In the past couple years, we've witnessed a remarkable VR renaissance, which must feel gratifying to those pioneers who stayed the course while VR was out of fashion. Heavily funded by the entertainment industry, sleek and relatively inexpensive gear is entering the market and being utilized in healthcare. To replace the clunky headsets of the first VR boom – often better in theory than in practice – are devices that patients, clinicians, and students can use gracefully and intuitively. It took a generation, but we are now seeing more and more applications that fulfill that initial vision of medicine transformed by the ability to immerse oneself in data.
This conference has endured with the support and encouragement of its Organizing Committee. To it and to the researchers who have shared their passion and hard work at this conference: thank you for all you've contributed in the last 25 years.
James D. Westwood
Aligned Management Associates, Inc.