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Haptic feedback to improve VR training experiences in healthcare

min read
Surgeons wearing virtual reality glasses and training with haptic assisted controls.

VR creates an artificial, computer-generated environment that can only be entered through a specialized headset, and such headsets have gotten more and more sophisticated over the last decade. Along with the technological advancement of VR comes the addition of sensory experience. Today’s VR is not necessarily only a visual experience for the participant but can also involve other senses, like touch, for a full immersion into a virtual world.

Haptics enables the experience of simulated touch within a VR environment. Most people are familiar with the basic idea of haptics. If you use a smartphone, for example, you experience haptic feedback every time you tap your screen. These light vibrations strengthen users’ sense of touch and let them know when they’ve interacted with the device.

This is a very simple example of haptic technology at work, enabling a normally non-responsive surface to emulate the feeling of touch. But haptics get a lot more sophisticated than a simple buzzing phone, and knowing what they enable opens up a world of possibility in VR training — particularly healthcare training.

What are haptics?

Haptic feedback adds a sense of touch to a VR experience. Through specifically designed gloves and other types of wearable devices, haptic feedback in VR enables users to experience force, pressure, vibration, and motion of objects inside an immersive environment.

For instance, imagine an immersive environment where you’re using a tool to perform a delicate task such as surgery. Being able to clearly see what you’re doing is important, but when it comes to the sophisticated manual dexterity important for surgery, touch is also a critical sense. If you can’t feel how deeply you’re pressing a scalpel or maneuvering a drill, it’s hard to translate the immersive experience to the real world, where objects have weight and density.

Haptic technology engages the user’s tactile senses beyond what they see inside the headset. That might mean the VR participant feels like they’re really pressing a button or cutting into a patient. The object may not be “real,” but it certainly looks and feels real, with realistic forces, textures, and even thermal feedback.

Haptic feedback in healthcare VR training

In 2022, the National Library of Medicine published a study that looked at how haptic feedback integrated into a VR simulation would affect the pace and quality of learning for junior sugeon trainees.

Through a virtual bone-drilling simulation within a VR environment, study participants drilled “​​3 bicortical holes in a VR tibia bone model in preparation for screw insertion followed by an ex-vivo equivalent task on a tibial sawbone model once again drilling 3 holes through both cortices of the tibia.”

Why so specific? This is exactly the kind of knowledge that can be taught thoroughly and at scale with immersive learning. The results of the study were clear. The learners who experienced their training with haptics demonstrated better performance on this orthopedic surgical task when compared with a control group of those who experienced non-haptic training.

Adding haptics to immersive learning

Immersive learning is a type of VR training in which a realistic VR experience is combined with cognitive science and spatial design. For healthcare organizations, Immersive Learning can successfully improve and scale training (and has, for organizations like AdventHealth and Stanford Children’s Hospital). It enables healthcare providers to learn new skills, upgrade rusty or rudimentary skills, and gain hours of practice in a comfortable, safe virtual environment that eliminates risk to real patients.

For healthcare organizations, adding specialized gloves to the immersive learning experience can insert haptic feedback. In this way, an experience that once may have been simulated with a joystick or another maneuverable device can be converted into a more realistic experience where the learner interacts with their hands, just as they would in real life.

Within an immersive virtual environment in which the learner practices a particular skill, such as surgery, haptics send specific signals through the brain, through the sense of touch, which enable the brain to form longer-lasting sense impressions. This is enabled by a specialized technology called “force feedback technology,” which replicates the feeling of an object’s density, size, etc., by simulating resistance.

Haptics as one part of a greater VR training strategy

As healthcare organizations begin to lean into Immersive Learning to better prepare all kinds of practitioners and employees for their roles, integrating haptics into their VR training strategy is an option.

Learn more about how immersive learning can accelerate healthcare training.

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