2022 forecast: AR, VR poised to send medtech into the next dimension

A handful of virtual- and augmented-reality-based technologies received millions in funding and FDA nods in 2021, setting the stage for a 2022 overflowing with new opportunities to take traditional medical procedures virtual. (ipopba/Getty Images)

Virtual reality headsets have been around for years, but for much of their history they have been largely confined to the realm of novelty accessories for high-tech gamers.

While VR and its even more immersive sibling, augmented reality, have been slowly trickling into the field of medicine in recent years, it wasn’t until 2021 that the dam broke and let loose a flood of AR and VR into the industry. The COVID-19 pandemic placed new value on going virtual, and the past year has marked a turning point with many of those far-fetched technologies finally becoming a true reality, backed by a deluge of venture capital funds and regulatory greenlights.

If 2021 was the year that immersive technologies finally found their footing in medtech, it stands to reason that 2022, in turn, will be the year that patients, providers and tech developers finally begin reaping the benefits of AR and VR.

The odds are good: A recent market research report estimated that between 2021 and 2026, the market for VR in healthcare will grow nearly 35% annually, swelling to more than $40 billion by the end of that time. That’s a far cry from the comparatively meager $2.7 billion space that VR carved out in medicine in 2020.

Reality check: Setting the stage for immersive tech’s takeover

Among the areas of medtech already experiencing major VR- and AR-induced changes is ophthalmology. Heru, a spinout from the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, spent the year riding that wave. After racking up $30 million in VC funding in May, it launched its re:Vive VR-based vision testing platform in August and had already begun rolling out the second-generation iteration of the platform by November.

The updated platform—accessible via commercially available headsets like those from Microsoft and Magic Leap—performs six tests, looking for color blindness, contrast sensitivity, visual field deficiencies and more. Even more tests are already in the works, including ones that use AR technology to identify the exact gaps in a patient’s field of view, allowing for hyper-personalized vision correction.

RELATED: Heru adds 3 more diagnostics to VR headset-based vision testing platform

Luminopia, meanwhile, snagged a de novo premarket approval from the FDA in October for its own vision-centric tool. Luminopia One delivers prescription-only treatment for lazy eye in kids—in the form of TV shows and movies viewed through a VR headset for an hour each day. The commercial rollout of the digital therapeutic is expected to begin by the second quarter of 2022.

Elsewhere in the realm of digital therapeutics, AppliedVR made history in November with the FDA’s first-ever OK for a VR device to treat lower back pain. EaseVRx guides patients through games, lessons and exercises that are backed by cognitive behavioral therapy and other practices to help ease their chronic pain in short, solo sessions across an eight-week period.

RELATED: FDA clears augmented reality smartglasses for guiding knee replacement surgeries

But perhaps even more ripe for revolution by way of VR and AR is the field of robotic surgery. Both Activ Surgical and Beyeonics reeled in back-to-back multimillion-dollar funding rounds this year for their immersive tech to guide surgeons through procedures.

Activ snagged $45 million in series B financing for its suite of AR overlays that add real-time analytics and guidance to surgical monitors, while Beyeonics said it would allot its $36 million take to continued development of its head-mounted monitor, which uses AR and artificial intelligence to fully immerse surgeons within a microscopic camera’s feed.

There’s also Pixee Medical, which scored a nod from the FDA in April for its Knee+ system, complete with AR-powered glasses. While wearing the glasses during a knee replacement, a surgeon can see real-time measurements of joint angles and planned incisions within their field of vision, meaning they can move quickly and efficiently through the procedure without having to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the surgical site every time they look away to check a separate monitor.

Outside of the OR, NuVasive is now looking to VR to offer high-tech, easily accessible surgical training. It tapped orthopedic surgery VR developer PrecisionOS in October to develop an international training program for its X360 minimally invasive spinal surgery system. By embedding its training module into a VR headset in 20 languages, NuVasive will be able to familiarize more surgeons, academics and salespeople around the world with its system—without the need for cadavers.

Making futuristic tech a (virtual) reality in 2022

These and other companies thoroughly set the stage for virtual and augmented reality technologies to take the spotlight in 2022, and even more have already begun laying out exactly how they’ll do that in the year to come.

NuVasive collaborator PrecisionOS, for one, will begin rolling out its newly FDA-cleared InVisionOS surgical planning system early in the year. The system works with a hospital’s existing imaging database to turn CT scans into 3D images, then sends them to a VR headset, where surgeons can explore the findings to plot out a procedure.

The new year may also usher in an FDA OK for Altoida, which scored the agency’s breakthrough device status in August for its AR-powered suite of tests for Alzheimer’s disease, bringing the immersive diagnostic significantly closer to widespread use. Yet another new product combining AR and VR may be on the horizon, too, if Medtronic’s work with VR developer Surgical Theater proves successful in its mission to translate flight simulator technology to real-time brain surgery guidance.

RELATED: It's a virtual world: Curebase, AppliedVR team up on VR-based, at-home clinical trials

Meanwhile, in a year-long initiative launched this summer, AppliedVR and Curebase announced they would put their heads (and VR expertise) together to assess the use of a 3D headset and goggles to conduct clinical trials from the comfort of participants’ homes.

And there’s plenty more to come from innovators like those at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, which unveiled the first-of-its-kind Department of AI and Human Health in October, complete with a dedicated area for the study of AR and VR in medicine—adding yet another to the mile-long list of signs that immersive technology is settling in for the long run in healthcare, through 2022 and beyond.