Metaverse & The Healthcare of The Future
Today, we are witnessing the topic of the Metaverse moving to the next level, with discussions around the topic already reaching the World Economic Forum stage. It is no surprise, as just the Metaverse market itself is predicted by the CitiGroup to hit a whopping $8 to $13 trillion as early as in 2030. It is no longer just about potential vast implementation in the gaming and entertainment industries, but about creation, governance, legislation, privacy and safety of an entire new universe. While we already covered some of these questions in one of our previous articles "The Seven Challenges of the Metaverse", today we would like to dive deeper into the concept itself, understanding what lies behind the term, its key components, technology stack, framework, as well as the potential implementation in one of the key industries where it could impact billions worldwide, in the Healthcare. Thus, we decided to turn to Alex Dzyuba, the founder & CEO of Lucid Reality Labs to get the best insights, vision and of course some predictions for the Metaverse in general as well as how it could be implemented in a number of healthcare directions for the foreseeable future. We asked Alex a number of questions to grasp the full scope of the concept and try to unravel its potential.
What is the definition or the concept of the Metaverse as you see it?
There are already quite a few definitions of the term out there, many from the prominent leaders of the tech industry. If I were to shape one, I would say Metaverse is the next generation of interaction, the Web 3.0 if you want to call it. The concept that will blend our physical and digital existence, an open and expansive universe that will transition users from flat 2D environments into immersive and interactive 3D. A common, ungoverned, and most importantly co-created existence, consisting of a myriad of Metaverse worlds, with open standards and no physical borders. We are talking about an iteration that is decentralized, scalable and autonomous, that allows users to connect into a unified existence from any device. Ideally, we are talking about an immersive, interactable, smart, intuitive and digitally enhanced environment which could be both artificially created or real-time augmented, enhanced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).
Who do you predict to be the first one to build the Metaverse?
If you think of innovation, digitalization or even space, there was always someone first to build, create or introduce a new concept, theory or term. We can put a name or a brand to many of the innovations. The term itself was introduced by Neal Stephenson in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash, where he spoke more of a virtual existence. When it comes to the idea of the Metaverse we have today, it implies cross device existence that is built on co-creation, then one that will unite multiple Metaverse worlds created by both companies and individuals. Thus, as we understand it today, we cannot really expect to have sole concept ownership, a single company or individual capable of creating such a structure. Even though Meta was amongst the first ones to talk about their vision of the actual creation, there are plenty of software and hardware elements that must come together in order to make it happen. Which will make it exponentially difficult to identify the creator, however we can already see numerous companies like Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Microsoft, Amazon, Roblox Corporation, Pixowl and others, contributing and being the pioneers of the next chapter of the internet's existence, the so-called Web 3.0.
What are the main technological elements of the Metaverse?
As the Metaverse promises to become a world of its own, an existence somewhere between purely physically and solely digital, it will incorporate a number of technological elements. Starting from a variety of hardware that includes but is not limited to flat screens, Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality devices (AR, VR & MR), smart glasses and mobile devices. The next significant fraction is the vast scope of software that will be essential to the creation of the Metaverse and that covers subjects of digital twins, hyper-realistic avatars, data, NFTs, cyber security, 3D modeling, design and many more. We can expect the Metaverse, to some extent, to be built using the same technological principals as the real-life and the current iteration of the internet, the Web 2.0, has. That includes communication, interaction, transaction, ownership and many other functions.
What will be the hardware technology in the Metaverse?
Even though many Metaverse experts talk about immersive technology making up the bigger fraction, considering that ideally it would be a space that connects users from around the globe, it ought to incorporate access from any mobile device. We already have a vast variety of Extended Reality devices from pioneers like Magic Leap and HTC VIVE to newer releases like Pimax Reality 12K QLED, Nreal Air and Varjo XR-3. While the Metaverse hardware market is oversaturated with AR, VR and MR enabled technology, one thing is for sure, that we cannot expect a sudden switch from flat screen devices to purely immersive technology.
It could take us another five to ten years to smoothly integrate XR into the everyday lives of average consumers, as the Metaverse is bound to be intuitive for users of different age groups and technical literacy, thus including elements with real-life physics as well as incorporating aspects of purely online environments and gameplay logic. On the other hand, enterprises already today are much more open and exposed to welcome XR devices, which without doubt has been driven by the pandemic constraints. And with that being said, enterprises will be the ones driving the adaptation of XR technology and its reach for mass consumers.
What components will be important for the Metaverse?
Like with any environment, the Metaverse will have its pillars and building blocks that will allow a seamless merging of digital and physical worlds. They will include an iteration of the Internet as the world wide web and a means to connect, digital identities capable of verifying individuals in cross platform experiences, open standards that are accessible and usable by anyone including the programming language standards, XR and other communication devices. Let’s not forget about the potential to unravel the next generation of visual fidelity with both hyper-realistic environments, assets and avatars playing an essential role in the user’s level of submersion.
At the same time if we are more abstract, the Metaverse without doubt ought to be scalable, interoperable, both digital & physical, with the capability to be populated by millions of users and contributors at the same time. It will have to have the capability to connect individuals and their virtual identities in a multilayer hybrid digital and physical economy.
How would we be able to identify ourselves in the Metaverse?
If you think of the Metaverse it seems pretty straightforward, until we actually start thinking about the details. Like in both real life and online, the Metaverse could require one to create and claim a digital identity that would reflect a number of characteristics, from demographic information to digital avatar appearance or even search history, that could identify a user. While in real-life we can present a personal ID to prove that we are who we claim to be, in the Metaverse a new standard of personal identification will be required. The challenge will be in making it ungoverned, fraud-proof and at the same time linked to a real-world identity.
On the other hand, we are bound to have digital personas, or better said – digital avatars, which will be part of our digital identity, however, could hold different physical and visual parameters different from the one an actual real person could have. With that being said, the accelerating power of 3D design software already enables us to create hyper-realistic avatars that represent the next level of visual fidelity. However, here is where we could have conflicting moments, when a person intentionally or accidentally replicates a real person’s physical features. This would be a tough challenge to overcome as the conflict would be between the freedom of expression and risk of misrepresentation or even fraud in the Metaverse.
What are the trends pushing the creation of the Metaverse?
The number of trends accelerating the creation of a unified Metaverse has increased significantly. With the growth of Live Streaming, accessibility of content creation and no-code platforms as well as the expansion of decentralized infrastructure boosted by the mainstream interest in crypto, we expect more enterprise and average consumers to join in on the hype. Spatial computing & AI will without doubt be amongst trends that will push the development of the Metaverse, along with automation, robotics, GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) power development, cloud computing and blockchain.
The rise of cybernetics, which has led to the miniaturization of high-speed networking devices and the widespread of both mobile device and wearable technology, allowed technology to move closer to one’s body, making users more prepared for the coming of headword immersive devices. Let’s not forget about the vast availability of the high speed internet and extensive roll-out of 5G and the coming of 6G which enables to transfer terabytes of data faster and more efficiently, which will be essential to run and connect millions of users of the Metaverse simultaneously.
Which industries are ready for the Metaverse?
Amongst the first ones to reach were the entertainment, gaming, real-estate and retail industries. We are beginning to see quite a few implementations in the advertising, fashion, art and sports industries as well. What excites me, however, is the potential the Metaverse holds for Healthcare. Here we are talking about a wide scope of directions including surgical, therapeutic, intervention, rehabilitation, remote monitoring, mental health, transformation of patient visits and many more. Healthcare functions like surgical preparations and patient demonstration could be moved into the immersive 3D environments of the Metaverse.
Just imagine being able to walk-through with the surgery along with the operating specialist, or medical students observing a surgery that is happening in real-time, remotely on their XR devices. Here we, however, will face yet another challenge. Accessing some of the healthcare functions through the Metaverse will require the creation of complete ecosystems that will allow access and exchange of patient data by institutions across the globe.
Tell us more about the Metaverse ecosystems?
Our everyday functions like education, logistics, manufacturing or even healthcare could potentially be replicated in the Metaverse, connecting physical and digital presence. This will require creating advanced cross platform ecosystems that are able to transfer and exchange data between different institutions. A great example of that, would be the connected healthcare ecosystem system, where one would have a cloud-based data storage, accessible by patients and specialists worldwide through the Metaverse and regardless of their physical location. Imagine having a possibility to reach any specialist in the world and have a face-to-face consultation simply through one of the immersive devices, either in Mixed or Virtual Reality.
These ecosystems could completely reshape access and availability for millions worldwide. The recent global pandemic has proven to be a great challenge we never expected to have, that has suddenly put so many restrictions on people around the globe, limiting both traveling and interaction possibilities. Of course, we are far from moving healthcare functions purely online, however setting the stage for such ecosystems could help us solve quite a few accessibility issues in the future.
What are the potential healthcare implementations in the Metaverse?
As already mentioned, healthcare would be one of the directions that can benefit greatly from the Metaverse. At this point, moving the entire institution into the digital domain seems much of a dream, but functions like education, communication, promotion, training, intervention and rehabilitation are the first ones that can be carried over and digitized. When it comes to medical training, we have already seen how the pandemic pushed many educational programs to a remote setting outside of the traditional existence. This chance has made it more accessible and available remotely for both the specialist and medical students.
The integration of XR technology has allowed these practices to remain hand-on and most importantly safe, for the real patients. We also expect the Metaverse and immersive technology to revolutionize surgery, allowing to re-create fully functional ORs (Operating Rooms) in a virtual environment, giving practitioners tools that enable planning in three dimensions or remote collaboration with other specialists around the globe. We can use the Metaverse environment to help with diagnostics, as immersive devices can both visualize complex information in an immersive set-up or even capture data like response time or eye focus through the worn XR devices.
What technology can make the healthcare Metaverse happen?
We’ve already spoken about the key pillars and building blocks that make up the Metaverse. However, when it comes to the healthcare sector, we need to put the emphasis on a number of technologies that will be essential for building users' trust, expanding implementation and global adaptation. First and foremost is the digital twin technology, here we are not talking about simply mimicking real-life objects and environments, but rather recreating their 1-to-1 digital replicas, identical to real-life counterparts, with the same visual quality, capabilities, functions, usability, responses and interactions. Enhanced by the real time data, digital twin technology can be used to recreate entire processes and be used to model and predict possible outcomes of entire procedures or operations. The same goes for the visual fidelity, which ought to be created having the same textures, materials, angles, light, spatial sound, as if the person is interacting with them in a real-life setting. We are not just talking about objects and environments, but also the digital twins of patients that will look, act and respond in accordance with how real patients would.
The other essential part would be to add haptic feedback that would allow specialists to practically touch and feel both the textures, surfaces and elements of the equipment as well as the body, skin and vital signs of the patients. The emphasis would also be on the multiplayer functionality, where specialists from any locations would be able to access and interact in the healthcare Metaverse environments together and simultaneously, regardless of their physical locations. As we cannot expect to have everyone dive into using immersive XR devices straight off the bat, we ought to build hybrid solutions that allow access to any experience from multiple devices including AR, VR and MR headsets as well as the ones users today are most used to, like mobile devices, PCs and tablets. This will enable us to take remote support to a completely new level, linking specialists in the same space regardless of their physical location.
What other elements will be important for the healthcare Metaverse?
Like with the currently existing AR, VR and MR solutions, analytics and data collection will play an essential role, as it could help track not only the specialists performance data, but mistakes that were made or moments to pay attention to for further healthcare Metaverse development. Data collection and analytics systems will play an essential role in improving the quality of education and interaction for medical specialists and care for the potential real patients. Adding a possibility to integrate a LMS (learning management system), could also contribute to the improvement of healthcare training and educational experiences, as it would advance content creation and management, tracking and reporting as well as make the experience more engaging for its users based on input data.
Here we are also talking about the potential of adding more advanced content, and most importantly having the opportunity of moving it from 2D to 3D format. We will see the healthcare system adopting fast content creation and management. Where specialists will be able to work with 2D images that can be easily transformed into the 3D format, bringing complex projections to life in real-time. Visualizing anything from an MRI, CAT, X-Ray scan or any other visual content will not just move into 3D, but will be accessible on both immersive XR devices as well as on what we still consider as traditional, flat screens, mobile and desktop devices.
The Metaverse without doubt will be an exciting new chapter in not just the history of the internet, but in the development of medical care globally, providing countless new opportunities. At the same time, healthcare will push the Metaverse to develop uncompromisable standards for both visual fidelity, functional precision as well as data privacy and security. While we are still on the doorstep of its development, the potential is already vast and exciting to even imagine. Like with many great things, it will bring its challenges, the ones the tech community will have to unite for to overcome. Nevertheless we are up to a great start, that will flourish and bloom into the next generation of communication, interaction and hybrid existence for medical specialists and patients worldwide.