Last summer I had the great opportunity to participate in an AR/VR in Medicine -project that brought great personal joy. For me the emotions of joy resurfaced strongly during the past week when I learned that our research paper on the project, Live delivery of neurosurgical operating theatre experience in virtual reality, received the Distinguished Paper Award 2018 of SID (Society for Information Display). Since then my mind has been on the ingredients of working joy. What made this project so exceptional? How did it all go?
As I wrote in Nokia’s official blog last July, the outcome of the project was an eye-opening, mind-boggling, experience. Even though I was not even near the surgical unit I “flew” with VR-glasses to “stand” by the operating table and could observe the neurosurgeon and nurses currently at work. In addition, I could switch my attention to the video-stream from the operating microscope or choose to look at slices of preoperative brain images floating on the screen. The images showed, what the medical problem was and where in the brain. You can read more about the project from my blog. In the awarded research paper, we also describe some user results. Virtual reality aided medical training provided an experience very near to bed-side training which is one of the cornerstones in medical education: Masters of trade share their knowledge with disciples.
Being part of a group that, from my view point, made a doctor’s dream of a new way to learn come true brought joy. The developed solution was a tangible example of how AR/VR can actually make an important contribution to medicine. I also experienced first-hand what can be achieved when people with different competencies and viewpoints not just talk but at the same time roll up their sleeves and pitch in to make an idea a reality.
From the many discussions with people who in different ways and at different timepoints used their expertise and time to make things happen, I know job joy was felt by many. It was like sailing on fair wind. At times it was a bumpy ride but we managed to keep direction. We shared a mutual goal. There was no talk of giving up at any moment. A way forward was always found. This emphasizes one important point: we did not spend time in writing a detailed project plan. We started doing things, but with eyes and minds open. We knew that doing will anyway reveal issues to be solved that we cannot foresee. We will solve them as they come. We avoided the pitfall of getting tangled in risk analysis and worrying. The people involved in the project both at Nokia and at Helsinki University Hospital (HUH) Department of Neurosurgery trusted each other. Everybody had important competence to bring to the project. Everybody saw the value in the work of others. We knew that together we can overcome issues that at first may seem like obstacles threatening the project.
Around the end of March, early April last year I got the phone call that ultimately put the project in motion. “What do you think, would Nokia be interested in bringing the OZO -camera to the operating theater?” We have a live micro-neurosurgery course coming up. Around 100 surgeons from around the world are coming to Helsinki to attend the one-week course. Wouldn’t it be great to add some VR here?” the neurosurgeon at the other end of the line asked. My first response was: “Yes”. The next one was: “Oops, when is the training course?” “Well, in June, before Midsummer”, was the answer. “Is that a problem?” Might be, I thought, but answered, “Let’s see, I’ll ask around”. I took the train to Tampere to meet with Nokia’s Digital Media Experiences Team. I had a hunch from some earlier discussions that the team has the spirit to dream big and dare. I was right. “Let’s do it, at least find out what is needed.” The neurosurgeons at HUH were like-minded.
So next, a group of us from Nokia made a field trip to the neurosurgery operating theater. The next lucky strike: We were welcomed with open arms to where all the action is. Soon we were standing together with clinicians in an (of course vacant) operating room and in full planning mode. At this point I became more of a person, who tried to keep up with the discussion on how to integrate certain operating theater technologies with media ones. We gave the project the nick name “MediaMeetsMedicine”.
Before THE phone call, there had been quite a lot of talking face-to-face about the future of health care in different settings and combinations of people interested in the topic. How can technology really help in taking care of people’s health and illnesses? In my experience best discussions with people arise most often when everything is not just about business at hand. Small talk is important. It is an appetizer for thinking together some more. The human connection where time and place are shared is really crucial to success.
Contrary to what is often claimed, medical doctors are not against technology. In fact, throughout medical history clinicians have been actively developing their medical tool kit. Our time is no different. Now the tool kit has in many ways become digital. After Nokia’ s OZO camera was announced, clinicians who knew I worked as a researcher and medical expert at Nokia started bringing up the topic of VR/AR opportunities in medicine. People working within AR/VR research at Nokia were also pondering the same questions. This was fruitful ground to team people up. By having the opportunity to hear first-hand from clinicians how things are done currently in technology intensive neurosurgery and thinking together (in the operating theater where the action is) what could be added into the setup by bringing media technology -based experience on board, a new solution that provides an AR/VR hands-on medical education experience gradually saw light.
Work joy was clearly present. Several doctors, as well as, nurses playing a key role during surgery, enthusiastically pitched in. The Chief of the Neurosurgery Department was onboard. At Nokia a couple of people form the business side joined us and helped to get an OZO camera for the project. Lawyers put their heads together with us to figure out a contract that both partners can commit to. Along the way new issues had to be solved. Like how to approach patients and ask if they are willing to have their operation recorded with OZO. We had many discussions on how to best give understandable information to patients and their family. Patient privacy and safety issues were addressed. Step-by-step we were getting nearer to D-day. Communications experts pitched in to plan how best to provide information of the project to different audiences and during demo sessions.
I must confess that I had a few moments of doubt. Especially when meeting some kill-joys along the way who saw mainly wicked problems eventually piling up. Can you really be certain that this won’t fail? Aren’t you worried what happens (to you) if the project does fail? You guys are not doing things by the book. Where is the project plan and business canvas? My answer was: When doing something new in research, you don’t have an cookbook with an accurate recipe. This is not a product development project.
I decided not to listen to that little voice of “practical me” that was, also at times, whispering in my own head: Come on, stop and think. Do you really know what you’re getting yourself in to? The voice of warning was important for being alert; paying attention to details that can have a huge impact, if forgotten.
I feel privileged to have worked with so many people that had the same attitude: Let’s make an idea we believe in come true. Let’s take a leap of faith. Let’s dare.
So, what next? Time will tell.