New VR technology has let us relive moments from history, visit alien worlds, and see our planet from the sky, but in a few hours, owners Google's Cardboard or Samsung's Gear VR headsets will be able to go somewhere they probably haven't before — inside an operating theater during real surgery. 360-degree cameras will be streaming live from 1PM BST (8AM ET) today as surgeon Shafi Ahmed conducts an operation at the Royal London NHS hospital in the UK, and those of you with a strong stomach will be able to watch along in virtual reality.
You can watch along with Cardboard or Gear VR headsets
Two 360-degree cameras will catch the gory details as Dr. Ahmed works on a 70-year-old patient with cancer of the colon, sending the footage to a dedicated app called VRinOR, available now for free in the Google Play and App Stores. VR viewers using Cardboard or Gear VR will be able to switch between these cameras in real time as Dr. Ahmed and his team of surgeons work, but you'll also be able to watch along on the app even if you don't have a headset, tilting your smartphone to look around the room as you would turn your head. A 360-degree video of the operation will be available for web browsers.
The app and the event itself is the work of Medical Realities, a company that uses VR, 3D, and 360-degree videos for medical training, while the cameras are provided by Mativision, an immersive video specialist better known for capturing the stage performances of Muse and guitarist Slash. Mativision says that the purpose of the VR surgery is "not to present close-ups, nor microscopic imagery," but to "give the feeling of actually being in the room." The company plans to enhance its experience for future surgeries — offering close-ups, patient diagnostics, and even video from inside the body — but that it kept it simple for the first VR broadcast to make it simple for people to watch and understand the live stream.
Steve Dann, co-founder of Medical Realities, says that these more complicated views will have particular application for trainee surgeons. "What we can do right now, it's based around filming real operations," he tells Ars Technica. "Then we'll transition over to creating a completely believable CGI environment you can inhabit. Finally, when the technology has caught up with what we want to do, we can add haptic feedback." Medical Realities has already produced 3D video of operations for trainees, but these more advanced surgery simulators (no, not that one) will eventually help students develop their skills and learn what to do in a crisis, without them needing to observe every situation first-hand.
Dr. Ahmed, the man behind the knife in today's streamed operation, sees this kind of technology as enabling remote education for doctors and surgeons in developing countries — using VR solutions to "sit in" on surgery without having to travel to top hospitals in far-off countries. While technical skills are important, he says that young surgeons also need to learn how to manage the stresses of the operating room. "In an operating theatre you have noises going on, you have stress levels, you have things going wrong, you have people passing things to you," he tells Ars. "Everything's around you and it's hard to train people in that. It really is because, unless you're in that environment, you don't know how to behave."
Medical Realities eventually wants to develop VR surgery simulators
"With immersion you learn how to behave professionally with your colleagues and how a team functions. Suddenly that whole learning environment becomes much greater than it would have been with a [conventional] simulation, which you can't create unless you're in a VR immersive world." Ahmed already has experience of using technology to let others watch his surgical experience first-hand — in 2014, he wore Google Glass while removing tumors from a 78-year-old patient, giving 13,000 medical students a chance to see through a seasoned surgeon's eye.
If Ahmed and Dann are right, it's good news for medical students across the world — but for the rest of us, who maybe aren't in medical school but just want to see what surgery looks like, the rise of VR and 360-degree video is giving us the best chance yet of sitting in on an operation. As for the patient who'll serve as the centerpiece for the live stream, he'll miss his big moment under general anesthesia, but he's said to be excited for his operation to be watched across the world.