Augmented Reality in Healthcare: From Operating Rooms to Smartphones

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by Leo Petersen-Khmelnitski

This is Part 2 of the text on augmented reality in healthcare. Part 1 is here. Below we dive into current adoption areas of AR, discuss possible and plausible future adoptions, and touch upon the challenges to address. AR will be larger then healthcare, where it is being widely adopted these days.

Current Adoption Areas

The Alliance of Advanced Biomedical Engineering has published a very interesting analysis of areas in healthcare where AR is currently adopted and to what purposes:

  • A dentist can build precise crowns or caps using AR software integrated into smart glasses that overlays real-time data directly from dental scanners.
  • Nurses get to better connect with patients and handle daily work situations requiring social, technical, and team skills through AR-enabled, tablet-based simulations of patient scenarios.
  • Medical imaging: through AR, surgeons can see stereoscopic projections superimposed on CT or MRI data during a surgical procedure. When surgery requires precise navigation to a specific organ, this information is vital.
  • Medical education: Teachers use augmented reality to teach students the basics of anatomy; doctors use it to learn about new drugs and therapies. Students learning the names of bones and muscles can use an artificial anatomy app that uses optical character recognition to access textbook images. AR applications give learners the ability to visualise and interact with three-dimensional representations of bodies.
  • Children: Evaluation of the child’s ability to lie still for a prolonged period of time by AR technologies in the format of a tablet game. Prior to MRI procedures, doctors use it to determine if a child will need an anesthetic.
  • Visualization of peripheral vasculature: clinicians can review a real-time map of the vascular system on the surface of the skin. Patients experience less discomfort during venipuncture procedures.
  • An AR supported video conferencing for healthcare surpasses traditional telemedicine. By projecting her/his hands on an AR display, a surgeon can remotely guide a peer during a procedure.


One of the first industries to recognize the benefits of AR technologies on human behavior, patient experience, and lifesaving interventions is the global healthcare industry. In just a few years, virtual reality applications will enable patients to examine their health and well-being in real time, giving them a snapshot of how time and unhealthy lifestyles would affect their bodies.

Soon, the market for AR in healthcare will resemble the smartphone market, since it will also target everyone. This ecosystem of AR health devices is experiencing a massive influx of hardware and software manufacturers, and most importantly, an abundance of data.

AR will be taken out of highly controlled environments such as operating rooms with further development of camera-based registration techniques. We can likely expect that most regular physicians will begin using AR by 2030.


Accurate registration of the real world and the virtual world is the biggest challenge for any precision augmented reality application. Currently, it involves attaching physical markers to the patient, which is time-consuming and labor-intensive. According to a recent UK research, surgeons may be able to use cameras and artificial intelligence to create ‘markerless’ AR systems.

Another pertaining issue is cost. AR services are becoming more affordable, mainly because hardware prices are declining. However, there is still a large amount of time spent converting images into data-relatable products.

Healthcare providers also worry about data privacy. Presently, AR devices do not encrypt data transmitted, which makes patient information vulnerable.

Another concern is depth perception. A large number of augmented reality applications rely on depth perception. Virtual objects are not always displayed with the same fidelity as real objects in AR.

For this technology to be widely adopted, technical issues such as depth perception, robust registration and tracking methods, and designing interactive user interfaces to intuitively control virtual and real parts of the scene must be solved.

Conclusion: not only healthcare

Across the world, augmented reality is used in healthcare facilities for purposes such as vein visualization, surgical visualisation, and education. The future-looking healthcare providers are exploring the potential benefits of AR for patients. Augmented reality has significantly improved the experience for users and developers due to recent hardware and software advancements. But AR is expected to be the primary source of multisensory instruction in many sectors, not just in health related industries. In future healthcare, augmented reality will significantly improve patient education, communication, and outcomes, but we are still at an early stage.