AR/VR is the future of clinical device service

February 21, 2020
By Art Larson

A CT scanner is down; patients are waiting. The hospital’s regular CT service engineer is hours away, but Rachel, another trained service engineer with less CT experience, is on-site.

Rachel connects online with a remote CT service engineer, describes the issue, and slips on an augmented reality headset. With it she can see a virtual overlay on top of the actual hardware in question as the remote engineer guides her to the likely source of the issue. She listens while watching as the engineer’s virtual hands demonstrate exactly what she needs to do. In minutes she makes a simple adjustment, and the scanner is back in service.

This scenario is not as futuristic as it might seem. Clinical service engineering is on the cusp of a revolution in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as tools for field engineer training and field service support. It’s a revolution as valuable as it is necessary.

Clinical service is changing dramatically. Healthcare providers’ demands for efficient, affordable, high-value service are ever-increasing. Meanwhile, the baby boomer generation of service professionals is retiring in significant number. There’s a critical need to train a new generation of engineers quickly, and to help those already in the field to be more proficient, versatile and productive. VR and AR are keys to the solution.

VR is an invaluable complement to hands-on training. It lets engineers morph into an environment where they can interact with devices in ways not possible in the physical world. They can explore deep inside a machine and see every component while listening to an instructor. They can quickly learn and practice complex procedures, like changing a CT tube, fixing an MRI chiller or replacing a delicate detector module. They can do procedures in minutes that in the real world would take hours, and can make mistakes without risk of injury or equipment damage.

AR is where the rubber hits the road in clinical service practice. It’s a toolkit that can help field engineers perform at a higher level. For example, it can help them service multiple products across modalities in addition to gaining deeper knowledge in their primary modality.

Engineers can view AR images superimposed on the device being serviced, not just through special glasses but through a tablet, smart phone or nearly any mobile device with a camera. An AR application then can act as a mentor, visually and orally guiding the engineer through each step of a procedure so that everything is done correctly and completely.

An AR application can “explode” the device into its components, making visible items that are covered in the real world. An engineer and remote specialist can view the images simultaneously and interact as if in the room together, helping the engineer recall and review procedures learned previously in training.

VR and AR technology will advance rapidly in the next few years. Already, device manufacturers use VR as part of service training at customer sites for telemetry and use AR during hands-on training to enhance the learning experience. Furthermore, AR training applications allow engineers to review and practice techniques in their homes before performing actual repairs.

Eventually, VR and AR could replace training documentation as we know it today, and for a fraction of the cost, build effective and interactive guides.

The integration of VR and AR, along with advances in artificial intelligence, have the potential to transform clinical service and other roles in healthcare. VR and AR can radically enhance service quality and efficiency for manufacturer and in-house personnel. They can help drive excellence from installation, to repairs, to clinical practice. Care providers and device suppliers who embrace these tools stand to benefit greatly.

About the author: Art Larson is general manager of Global Services Education with GE Healthcare.