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Virtual reality meets the operating room: live operation to be broadcast next month

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If you’ve wanted the chance to watch an operation as though you were in the operating room itself, on April 14 you’ll get the opportunity. Doctors at The Royal London Hospital, in partnership with virtual reality company Medical Realities and live-streaming service Matavision, will perform the first operation to allow viewers to participate using virtual reality.

The patient is a man in his 70’s who is suffering from colon cancer. He is said to be “excited” about participating in the groundbreaking broadcast. This said, there’s always the risk of complications in surgery, so the livestream will be delayed by one minute to allow broadcasters to cut the broadcast off, much like the seven-second delay used in live television.

Who’s doing the surgery? The chief doctor is no stranger to using high tech. Dr. Shafi Ahmed was the first doctor to livestream an operation using Google Glass in 2014, and he has also experimented with using 360-degree cameras as well. And he’s very excited about the broadcast’s potential effects.

“It showcases virtual reality for what it should be used for — education,” Dr. Ahmed tells the Weekly Standard. “Trainees usually struggle to see over a surgeon’s shoulder during an operation or have to stand in the corner, and that way of learning has been accepted for the last hundred years. This is a game changer, and they can see if anything goes wrong how we react to it.”

The entire procedure is expected to take about two to three hours if all goes smoothly, and it will start on April 14 at 1:00 pm local time in London, or 9:00 am ET. Anybody can watch, and all that’s required is Google Cardboard and a compatible smartphone.

Dr. Ahmed’s use of virtual reality here shouldn’t be too surprising. VR was one of the hot technologies at this year’s CES, and companies from Google to Samsung and others are rushing to commercialize the technology.

Even Apple — long known for its cautious approach when it comes to new technologies — is said to be building a “massive” team aimed at developing virtual and augmented reality devices of its own. Where this goes we don’t know, but 2016 is already shaping up to be a pivotal year for VR.

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