Critical Update: Veterans Affairs Applies Mixed Reality Tech to Solve Real-World Health Issues


Department officials are exploring virtual worlds and using artificial intelligence to transform medical treatments.

Having poised itself as an extremely early adopter of fifth-generation wireless capabilities, the Veterans Affairs Department is leaning into the boosts from that upgrade to steer future-facing emerging technology-driven experiments.

And Dr. Thomas Osborne has a front-seat view to the unfolding innovation.

“What we're working on is really cutting edge. It's really, you know, far advanced—beyond what most people are doing or even thinking about, as far as I know,” he said in this episode of Nextgov’s Critical Update podcast.

Osborne wears multiple hats as the director of VA’s National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s chief medical informatics officer. He also works in academia. From his unique purview, the doctor shed some light on strategic efforts through which the massive health agency is deploying technologies that sound straight out of science fiction to modernize the care it provides.

For instance, through a recent telepresence experiment, VA collaborators in different locations across the county interacted as if they were in the exact same physical space—via a virtual environment. 

“The implications of this, I think, are pretty great in many different ways,” Osborne explained.

The department is also exploring virtual and augmented reality capabilities that could lead to what is essentially X-ray vision for health care planning and purposes down the line, he confirmed. Technologies to support people who are visually impaired are also being developed—like a smart cane that uses sensors and LIDAR to guide those who hold it. Osborne additionally confirmed details about a new proof of concept publicly for the first time with Nextgov

“My favorite part of my job is to help provide our veterans with the best, most advanced health care possible and in doing so to be part of building the healthcare system of the future, which can have far reaching positive impacts for our veterans, obviously, and their caregivers, and family, and friends,” he said. “But also, what we do at VA has the potential to help the rest of the country and perhaps the world.”

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