While Meta, the former Facebook, may have recently made the concept of the metaverse more widely known to the general public, the term is actually quite old, having first been coined by author Neal Stephenson for his 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash. The concept of the metaverse is a shared digital environment, wherein people can work, collaborate, shop, socialize and more. It relies on a 2- or 3-dimensional electronic platform that is independent of any single device and which can be accessed by a variety of different devices, allowing convergence between the physical and digital world. The metaverse provides a virtually enhanced experience generated from combinations of several different immersive modalities:
- Augmented Reality (AR) – a live view of a physical environment with added digital sensory input like sound, graphics, video or GPS data
- Mixed Reality (MR) – a combination of the physical and virtual worlds to generate a new environment where interactions between virtual and physical objects can happen in real time
- Virtual Reality (VR)– a computer-generated virtual environment that users access via devices like VR headsets
The original and still most widely used applications of the metaverse are in consumer gaming. However, the growing access and shrinking cost of such technologies as 5G cellular networks, grid computing, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and more are driving huge networks of many different applications. This has led to increasing adoption in other fields, including life sciences and health care.
Conducting operations within the metaverse can offer several critical benefits for businesses, and research or health care institutions. For example, it can be highly cost efficient, negating the need for travel, and allowing many ideas and structural designs to be tested before they are implemented. It can increase sustainability by allowing processes to be replicated with less waste and reduced environmental impacts. New ways of working or doing business can also be tried virtually or logistics planned before they are implemented. Training can be conducted more efficiently and at lower cost. Moreover, communications can be improved, both internally across a workforce, and externally, facilitating collaboration between institutions even on a global basis.
Within life sciences, pharma has been incorporating some of the technologies now associated with the metaverse for several years. For example, Roche uses MR technology to present new therapies during road shows to pneumo-oncologists through Microsoft’s Hololens and 3D models of patients’ chests, using a progression of scanned images that allows the audience to follow the evolution of a patient’s disease and response over time to particular treatments. In another example, Pfizer is harnessing digital twin technology (wherein an exact digital representation of a real world object, location, or even a person is created to allow virtual manipulation or experimentation) of its sterile injectables factory in order to optimize its supply chain and train employees more effectively. Thus, pharma’s engagement with the broader virtual environment of the metaverse is seen as a natural progression.
As the number of uses for the metaverse increases and the cost and access to its component technologies improve, use of this virtual environment is expanding throughout the life sciences and health care. For example, VR and MR technologies allowing hands-on, immersive training on surgical procedures and the use of medical devices for other tertiary care can allow for better training and planning of procedures without the risk of harming the patient. Companies are able to improve customer relationships at lower cost by conducting workshops with health care providers and patients in the metaverse. The metaverse also offers the opportunity to reduce the time and cost of clinical trials, by allowing the home monitoring of patients. Mental health therapy is additionally starting to benefit from the immersive experiences offered by the metaverse in the treatment of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, pain and stress management, and depression. Physical therapy and stroke recovery are also benefitting from these technologies as patients access virtually enhanced workouts, and physicians are able to track a patient’s progress, regardless of their geographic location.
The continued growth of the metaverse and its widespread use still faces some significant challenges. On the technological side, there is still insufficient connectivity, interoperability, and data sharing to allow further cost reductions and improve stakeholder experiences. More, better, and less expensive devices are needed to connect with the metaverse such as holographic displays, ultrasonic force field generators (haptics), VR goggles, and other wearables, such as those that capture muscle signals. Data privacy and security also remain significant issues and some raise the concern of potential ethical issues.
However, over the next five years, experts predict that applications of the metaverse and its individual components will be employed to help improve such things as disability and elder care, hospital triage and operational decision making, and help generate more accurate claims and provider data. Longer term, they foresee new applications in robotic surgeries and surgical collaborations between globally distant experts using patient digital twins, live virtual hospitals and clinics, and greatly improved care navigation and security for patients. The use of genetic mapping to create digital twins of human patients is also eventually expected to enable virtual trials, not only of new drugs and devices, but also to assess outcomes such as surgical recovery times and long-term treatment outcomes.