Augmented Reality: The New, New Media

July 1, 2010

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2010, Volume 0, Issue 0

New strategies like augmented reality can increase patient compliance and knowledge.

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.

Guy Mastrion

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.

Real World Use

It is especially important that pharma recognize the various applications of augmented reality. In the wake of the recent economic recession, pharmaceutical companies have started tuning their ears to technological innovations that will potentially cut costs by replacing sales teams. This is a complete misconception and misuse of technology. Hi-tech applications like augmented reality maximize the value of pharma industry representatives by making them work more efficiently and arming them with engaging tools for effective detailing.

Sales reps can gain trust through transparency with AR demonstrations of their product's effects on the human body. For instance, doctors will be able to visualize how and how quickly a drug passes through internal organs by seeing the process projected onto a real person. In addition, an AR demonstration can help doctors explain to their patients how exactly a medical device, like an inhaler or pacemaker, works. Augmented reality can also put lengthy information, such as scientific testing and adverse effects, at a physician's fingertips, and make data available for review on the doctor's time.

One important lesson pharma marketers will need to learn is that augmented reality is not simply interactive by virtue—you have to make it so. This means considering how your target audience already utilizes the technology, and how they can adopt it in a way that enhances their lives. Current applications of augmented reality are location-based, and the healthcare industry is already experimenting with using AR to navigate patients towards hospitals, clinics, and specialists. Pharma companies can leverage augmented reality to create useful tools that benefit patient education and compliance, and answer questions such as: Where can patients refill their prescriptions, and where is the best place for a patient to give herself an insulin shot? Developing AR software that answers these questions will give your brand the edge over competing drugs by adding value.

Current applications of augmented reality are location-based, and the healthcare industry is already experimenting with using AR to navigate patients towards hospitals, clinics, and specialists. Another location-based application of augmented reality is to identify high-risk areas during an epidemic. Pharma can also work with doctors to generate brochures and other educational materials about your drug for their patients, help patients undergoing surgery understand the procedure, and illustrate the consequences of improper use of your drug or device.

Future Forward

Most people find it surprising that augmented reality has been around for decades. But it has been right in front of us all this time. Sportscasters have used it to mark up broadcasts of live games; weathermen use it to make their maps more dynamic. Despite these common uses, augmented reality has stayed under the radar of most major industries. That is, until widespread use of mobile phones and other portable camera-enabled devices generated a renewed interest in AR technology. It's imperative that the pharmaceutical industry not only take notice, but also use augmented reality to change people's relationships with their medications.

On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, as part of the federal stimulus package, providing incentives to healthcare providers who adopt electronic medical records (EMR). Augmented reality facilitates the meaningful integration of EMRs into day-to-day operations; with doctors and nurses carrying around camera-equipped mobile devices, they can instantly access the conditions and treatment histories of any patient, and decide who needs immediate care.

In addition, moving X-ray images can help physicians better understand paralyses and injuries to the human body. Doctors can study skeletal elements such as spine curvature, and perform range-of-motion testing. AR technology can even aid in the implementation and testing of medical implants and other internal devices such as pacemakers and hearing devices. It's already clear that AR will play a major role in revolutionizing the healthcare system. Pharma has plenty to benefit from augmented reality as well.

Guy Mastrion is chief global creative officer at Palio and co-founder of Pixels & Pills. He can be reached at gmastrion@Palio.com

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