Facebook is known for making waves with new acquisitions, and one of the latest is no exception: Oculus, a virtual reality gaming company Facebook acquired for $2 billion that includes $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook stock. Though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Oculus will continue to focus on gaming in the short term, the deal is actually about staying ahead of the curve and embracing the next big computing platform shift.
“Gaming is just the start,” Zuckerberg said in a conference call with reporters and analysts shortly after the March acquisition announcement. “After games, we are going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers from all over the world, consulting with a doctor face-to-face, or going shopping in a virtual store where you can touch and explore the product you are interested in just by putting on goggles in your own home.”
That reference to telemedicine definitely got attention — and raised many questions about just what Oculus could do in the world of healthcare. Could it really be a game changer?
What does Oculus mean for healthcare?
Oculus makes various types of virtual gaming systems. One of the most buzzed-about is Rift, a headset with positional tracking that changes the view based on the head movements of the user. The uses in the healthcare field were almost immediately evident.
Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey told Popular Mechanics that virtual reality systems like Rift are “the future of diagnostic tools.” In addition to creative an immersive experience for the user, Rift could be an excellent tool for 3D imaging. “The idea is that you’d take a 3D scan, and you’d look at it at scale inside the body but you’ve cut everything away except for whatever area of interest you have,” Luckey said.
Oculus Rift has already proven itself as a viable option for treatment of anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. By using graded exposure therapy, the technology allows patients to confront their fears in a very controlled environment, which then allows them to develop coping mechanisms that might take much longer to hone in the “real” world.
Healthcare education is on top of the changes, with the American College of Surgeons shifting national curriculum requirements to include work on simulators. This means medical students can work on surgical procedures over and over until they can execute them perfectly, rather than the traditional method of using animals to practice a handful of times during their training. This could translate into surgeons who have better training at a much more affordable price.
Speaking of costs, lowered prices for virtual reality could be another benefit of the Facebook acquisition. Virtual reality systems often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it difficult for everyday use in healthcare. Systems like Rift cost only a few hundred dollars, which makes them very accessible for medical students, doctors and hospitals. Facebook’s trend of bringing technology to the masses might serve to push the costs down even further.
What are the downsides?
As with any emerging medical technology, privacy is a concern. How will Facebook handle HIPAA compliance? After all, no one wants to see their private medical information wind up in their timeline. As a social network, Facebook is generally not associated with health issues, nor does it have a platform set up to handle the numerous privacy issues that will certainly arise when virtual reality becomes available for everyone. However, the vast number of Facebook users might be seen as a very good reason to start building a separate platform to handle the new health ventures.
Another issue might be acceptance. Facebook is often seen as a young, hip way to connect online, and that could alienate many older patients who see virtual reality as something a little too high-tech for their tastes. In order to make virtual reality in telemedicine truly accessible, Facebook will have to reach out to potential users in a way that clearly differentiates the medical platform from the current social media uses that define the site.
There is also the possibility — as dire as it sounds — that Facebook might choose to simply focus their new virtual reality ambitions on the constantly-growing video game market, and any aspirations to use the technology in healthcare might hit a snag. But given the promising words of Zuckerberg on the acquisition of Oculus, there is hope that the future of telemedicine is very bright indeed. What are your thoughts?
Shannon Dauphin Lee is a contributing writer for HIT Consultant.