What is mixed reality and how can it transform physiotherapy?

Mixed reality products like Microsoft’s HoloLens have the potential to transform the way anatomy and physiology is taught and how physiotherapy is practiced. 

Wait, I thought virtual reality (VR) was touted as the next big thing? While it’s true that virtual reality headsets are changing how we experience the human body, mixed reality is garnering even more excitement from the technology, medical and scientific sectors.

Unlike virtual reality, mixed reality includes a combination of real and virtual worlds. Through the lens of a mixed reality headset you can see other people in a room, furniture, everything that is physically present and 3D objects. It’s an immersive way to interact with real people while also exploring digital content.

It’s easy to see how this technology could be used to teach functional anatomy. It could allow users to walk around a 3D image of a person undergoing a fitness test and watch how the diaphragm moves and how heart valves open and close. What’s more, mixed reality could make exercises fun and engaging for patients and could even contribute to new diagnostic tests in the same way that VR is being used to develop a test for dementia.

Right now, HoloLens is being used by NASA to create the experience of walking on Mars, and development kits – versions of the hardware and software that are still in development – are being used by medical students at Case Western University to learn anatomy. These development kits cost around $3,000 USD and are only available to people who Microsoft thinks can contribute to the development of the product. Think universities, large organizations and research institutions.

Other mixed reality products that will hit the market soon include Magic Leap, which projects images onto a user’s retina and purportedly creates an augmented experience because it taps into the brain’s natural way of processing images.

Mixed reality could transform the way we teach the fundamentals of physiotherapy and how we treat and manage patients. It’s an exciting development in the tech world with very real-world implications for our profession. Now we just need the price point to drop significantly! Mainstream adoption of VR and MR would ensure a more affordable product and there’s a good chance we’ll see this happen in the next 5-10 years.