Medicine Meets Virtual Reality

Bryan Bergeron
May 2012

I’m just back from the annual Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference (www.nextmed.com) in Newport Beach, CA. The topics discussed and demonstrated by engineers, students, military, and physicians ranged from mechatronics and sensors, to wearable electronics and biomedical simulation. There’s nothing like cross-fertilization with specialists from different fields to get the ideas flowing. In addition to conferences such as MMVR, there are pockets of focused activity in academia, the government, military, and industry. For example, take a look at the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) site at www.tatrc.org. Not only is TATRC a showcase for advanced technologies — such as the use of embedded systems in healthcare — but the organization is also a source of funding and information.

There’s no question that carpet rovers and crawlers are fun to design and program. However, if you want to make a career out of applied robotics, I suggest you take a hard look at the experimental and practical biomedical applications of haptics, embedded systems, and other technologies related to robotics. You’ll quickly discover that all of the engineering courses in the world won’t prepare you to adequately address the biological aspects of challenges in the field — and that’s the real point of this editorial. If you’re still in school, get some biology and anatomy under your belt. If you’re in college majoring in engineering, don’t think of biology as one of those electives you have to take to graduate, but attack it as part of your core curriculum. It’ll pay off later. For example, let’s say you want to build surgical simulators. You’ll have to understand how skin and other tissues respond to cutting, tearing, and pressure. Then, there’s basic anatomy. You wouldn’t want to design a surgical robot that cuts right through vital nerves and arteries to get to a wound, would you? Of course, you can’t know everything about biology, medicine, and robotics, but you need to be able to communicate intelligently with experts in each field.

If you’ve been out of school for a while and want to extend your knowledge of robotics to healthcare, options range from online courses and night classes at your local college, to internships or employment with a company that’s already in that space. I like the latter two options because you can make money while you learn.

If you can’t leave your current job or you don’t yet have the skillset required to land a job or internship, consider online learning. I don’t mean random YouTube videos, but courses in Biology, Physiology, and even Medicine from established sources. I’m a fan of Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) which is supported in part by the Gates Foundation. You can learn topics in Biology, for example, at the first year college level. Another place to start is iTunes University which hosts podcasts in Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, and related topics from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkely, and other universities. I hope to see you presenting one day at MMVR or one of the other conferences that blend traditional robotics and engineering with medicine and biology. SV

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