Augmented Reality: The New, New Media

Jul 01, 2010


Guy Mastrion
Esquire magazine delivered a walking, talking Robert Downey Jr. right to its readers' homes. Dabs is letting tech enthusiasts inspect its new Acer Aspire 5738D laptop from different angles before purchasing. Real estate firms are navigating buyers around properties without setting foot in the structure. And while Nestle sold over 2 million cereal boxes printed with an interactive 3-D game, Lego made augmented reality (AR) packaging popular in the US with its in-store kiosks that let customers preview finished models of any Lego kit.

Ready for Prime Time

Many people find augmented reality campaigns such as these to be clever, but few find the technology to be useful. However, anyone who dismisses augmented reality as a fad simply doesn't know enough about it or its potential to forever change the pharma industry, nonprofits, and other health organizations. From educating doctors to supplementing surgical maneuvers to empowering the pharmaceutical sales force, AR applications will provide real value to patients and healthcare professionals alike.

In order to understand its impact, we must first understand augmented reality. Augmented reality blurs the lines between the physical world and a virtual world by superimposing digital data on a real-world environment. Specifically, augmented reality places computer-generated text or imagery within the context of time and space. Early forms of AR were restricted to static visual augmentations, but more recent evolutions include video and even sound.

Equipment Check

An augmented reality experience requires the following hardware: a camera, a viewing device (webcam, camera-enabled phone, or other such device), and in most cases a tracker or marker that identifies where the augmentation should be projected. The user points the camera at the environment, the environment is displayed on the screen, and the digital data overlays the video feed. Other versions use various forms of headgear to project data onto the user's field of vision. Digital innovation agency Zemoga rendered some code—an image resembling a game of Tetris—to demonstrate to our healthcare clients how augmented reality works. Hold the strange, blocky image up to a webcam, and it becomes a full 3-D rendering of the human heart.

Examples like the one above have convinced the healthcare industry to start dipping its toes into the augmented reality pond. But there are a few good reasons pharma should go ahead and dive in.

Augmented reality holds profound implications in the area of medical training and physician education. Through sophisticated depth perception and accurate motion detection, augmented reality has the potential to significantly enhance the training process, producing smarter, better healthcare providers. Augmented reality can assist surgical simulations with 3-D renderings of occlusive organs. Med students practicing complex needle biopsies can benefit from external ultrasound projections.

Additional features, such as timely narrations and zoom functions, provide even more guidance during difficult maneuvers. So far, physician education has proven to be the most profitable area for investing in augmented reality technology, but what about employing AR at the point of care?

The implications are many and the potential upside for all of this is significant; however, it takes a strong, multidisciplinary team to manage an augmented reality initiative. Technology may be the driver of new solutions and better outcomes in health, but it is still intellectual capital that will make it succeed.