Putting VR into Big Pharma

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What is VR and why should healthcare and pharmaceutical companies take note?

VR (Virtual Reality) places the user into a virtual world. VR differs from Augmented Reality (AR), which sets virtual objects against the backdrop of the real world—as in Pokemon Go, the augmented reality smartphone craze of 2016—or simply an overhead projector displaying words onto a flat surface are clear examples of augmented reality.

“VR has the potential to help drug hunters more quickly improve the molecular makeup of a new drug by smoothing communications between scientists and enabling them to see biological machinery more clearly”

Viktor Hornak, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR)

VR, however, is an utterly immersive experience—it almost completely blocks out familiar real life distractions, effectively transporting the user into a new world. The headsets provide 360-degree vision, surround sound and, in some cases, touch and smell capabilities. From riding a convincing, high-speed rollercoaster, to re-enacting the path of medicine as it travels through a patient, to experiencing how it feels to deal with symptoms of rare diseases, the opportunities in healthcare begin to grow.

Oculus is the market leader for VR headsets, previously retailing its products for over USD 400 per device, which effectively priced the technology out of casual consumers’ reach. Pharmaceutical audiences have been using the Oculus Rift and the HTV Vive One for years at expos and conferences, but VR has yet to break the mainstream. The Oculus Go, released in July this year, retails at under USD 200 and stands as a turning point in making VR accessible to consumers and businesses alike. GSK recently released an interactive video highlighting the dangers of migraines at work, (while promoting Excedrin®) intended for viewing through a virtual reality headset. The 360-degree video shows the effects of “a migraine from the perspective of a hard-working paramedic arriving at an accident,” plunging the audience into a blurry, loud and confusing world.

The VR world can also serve as a tool for educating patients, allowing them to visually comprehend how medicines can assist them, conveying the important message of the need for better discipline and adherence when taking medication. Moreover, in theory, VR could allow healthcare professionals to perform operations virtually, a surgeon could observe the feel and potential for complications during operations before entering the theatre for real.

Big Pharma is on board with VR to varying degrees: Amgen offers a 360 virtual tour of their manufacturing facilities—which is better experienced through a VR device; Pfizer has employed VR to “visualize and virtually explore the human body at the molecular level” and at Novartis, Viktor Hornak, an investigator in the Global Discovery Chemistry department at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), comments on the potential of “VR to help drug hunters more quickly improve the molecular makeup of a new drug by smoothing communications between scientists and enabling them to see biological machinery more clearly.” Whereas in pharmaceutical marketing, creating a virtual reality story makes for a more engaging, absorbing story, and it can add a new dimension to training, planning and rehearsal strategies.

Will we see pharmaceutical marketers handing out VR devices during demonstrations, and will laboratory researchers swap their safety goggles for Oculus Go? VR has been around for nearly seven years and still carries a novel and gimmicky reputation in business, primarily used for its ‘wow factor’ rather than as a go-to educational tool. It could suffer the same fate as Google Glass, which, notwithstanding tremendous hype, endured abysmal sales despite its potential in pharmaceuticals, notably its capacity to remotely advise and monitor manufacturing operators, providing a virtual point of view (POV) visual on employees.

For many, the real impact of the VR and AR world will be upon the arrival of 5G which could be as much as 100 times faster than 4G. 5G’s arrival is scheduled for anytime between 2020 and 2025; currently, no public smartphones, computer systems or technology are equipped to handle the faster speeds. 5G will allow for real-time streaming of information to VR headsets, creating better VR video calling, training, and quicker manipulations during experiments. For the time being, it may be a fad, but as the technology develops and connectivity accelerates, VR for healthcare therapies, pharmaceutical marketing and molecular education may become more commonplace.

Writer: Joseph Hall

"I believe that across the board, pharma players should be rolling up and looking into the field of jah praising and deep spiritual introspection. It was the great Bob Marley who once said: 'When you smoke de erb it reveals you to yourself'. "

- Marc Wayne, Canopy Health

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