Virtual Reality is used in many applications within the medical field. The three most prominent uses relate to education and training, surgery and diagnosis assistance, and electronic replication of existing medical facilities.

Education and Training

Virtual reality provides medial students and physicians with interactive training opportunities in a risk-free situation. Through a virtual environment, students are able to conceptualize abstract learning environments. Virtual reality is being used in all medical applications from cosmetic surgery to neurology. The technology transforms data, such as a CT or MRI scan, from a typically flat image to a three-dimensional image of the patient which is stereoscopic. This allows surgeons to visualize complex procedures prior to the actual surgery and even practice surgical procedures.

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Surgery and Diagnosis Assistance

The use of augmented reality, a variation of virtual reality, is being developed for medical applications. This technology would bring virtually created images of a patient into the operating room and project a 3-D image of the actual patient so that the surgeon can see the structure beneath the surface. This means smaller incisions, shorter recovery times, and safer surgery. In addition, surgeons are able to practice complicated maneuvers on the virtual patient prior to performing the procedure on the actual patient. During surgery, the virtual system tracks the surgical instruments and their exact location. With this precise information, the surgeon can make smaller incisions and reduce recovery periods.

Virtual reality is also being researched for use in emergency rooms. By projecting 3-D images of data gathered in a CT or MRI, very rapid diagnosis of a severe injury will be possible.

Electronic Replication of Existing Medical Facilities

By digitally cloning existing medical facilities, all geographic limitations can be eliminated. For example, the University of Iowa has undertaken a project to replicate their health sciences colleges, library, hospitals, clinics, and medical curriculum in a virtual environment. This will allow access to up-to-date information at the point of careóno matter where that may be. Through the use of virtual reality technology, the future of medical care will transcend the traditional hospital as virtual medical communities make resources available electronically to a potentially unlimited audience outside hospitals. In the near term, the virtual environment will aid in providing resources to rural physicians and keeping physicians informed of current knowledge within the medical field.

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Limitations of Virtual Reality in Medical Applications

Virtual reality applications in the medical field are limited by the data transmission speeds of current infrastructure. Those involved in virtual reality research in the medical field are hopeful that the Internet2 project will filter down to the "commodity" Internet allowing access to Internet2ís high-speed data backbone. As data transmission speeds increase, more and more applications will become feasible.

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