If you’ve spent any time paying attention to virtual reality news in the past year, you’d be excused for thinking the industry’s focusing its attention solely on uninspired games and expensive efforts to conduct office work in, (insert jazz hands) “the metaverse.” Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the company once called Facebook, has already invested well over $10 billion in that project and even changed his company’s name to fulfill that sci-fi inspired fantasy.
But that’s only telling part of the VR story. Just below the surface of the metaverse hype are dozens of other companies investing in the less sexy, but almost certainly more consequential area of training simulations. One of those is FundamentalVR, who’s hoping their first of its kind mixed approach of powerful graphics, haptic feedbacks, AI, and multimodal learning can accelerate the time it takes surgeons, optometrists, and a whole host of other healthcare professionals to get to a position where they can perform actual surgeries.
Fundamental invited Gizmodo to their New York office to test out their surgery simulation tool ahead of its Series B Funding announcement on Thursday, where the company revealed it raised an additional $20 million from investors to advance and scale its tech. The new funds, raised mainly from investors EQT Life Science and Downing Ventures, brings the company’s total funding to over $30 million.
The real world benefits of FundamentalVR’s technology were immediately clear after about an hour of use. What was also clear though is that the technology alone isn’t enough to magically transform any random passerby into a professional doctor. This writer, in particular, has perpetually shaky hands and might be the furthest thing from surgeon material in the five boroughs. As a result, the simulated “surgery” looked more like a gory, campy 80’s horror movie.
After some cordial banter, it was time to get drilling and slicing. I slipped on a HP Reverb G2 VR headset and groped around for a model drill placed atop a table to my left. FundamentalVR’s platform isn’t company dependent, and can also be used with other standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest and HTC Vive Focus Plus. As I opened my eyes I was transported into a sterile, blue hospital room. A thick human leg laid before me with a softball sized hole bulging out from the patient’s thigh. The gaping hole was held open with four metal stents resembling larger versions of the devices used to pry open Alex’s eyeball in The Clockwork Orange. I was told my job was to perform a hip surgery on the patient. No biggie.
Surgery VR simulations on their own aren’t anything particularly new, but what potentially sets FundamentalVR’s platform aside (and what they spare no time reminding people) is their highly tactile haptic feedback system powered by its patented Haptic Intelligence Engine. That system, Fundamental says, “delivers full kinesthetic force feedback haptics into a variety of handheld devices,” which can range from hand held instruments like a drill or pen, or even haptic feedback gloves. This level of detail, the pitch goes, gives surgeons and other healthcare workers the opportunity to mimic the feel of a real surgery without the real world circumstances and build confidence during the process.
Unlike other haptics that are able to mimic a few sensations, usually badly, FundamentalVR’s platform replicated the rubbery, bouncy sensation of a meaty leg, the cool hard slickness of metal, and the abrasive resistance of bone all seamlessly. I would know, I spent around 90 seconds incessantly poking the fatty part of the leg because I’m a professional journalist.
After some sufficient prodding from my handlers, I got back to the task at hand. The FundamentalVR employees hovering beside me gave me some basic hints on how to get the surgery going. I inserted the drill into the wound and began vigorously using the drill. My ears were filled with the unsettling sound of bone being chipped down from all sides thanks to the headset’s use of spatial audio. Around halfway through working on the poor patient’s leg I was suddenly reminded of installing my last shelf. Feeling pleased with myself I set down the drill and clicked next on the system’s UI.
I failed horribly.
Failing, as it turns out, is an integral component of FundamentalVR’s appeal. Rather than rinse and repeat the process ad infinitum, the platform offers a helpful heads up display with a superimposed series of rings showing the users where to properly hold and handle the drill. I followed the directions and within moments I successfully leveled out the patient’s bone. The bone suddenly felt smooth to the touch.
Founded in London in 2015, FundamentalVR currently offers its platform in teaching hospitals in more than 30 countries and has received accreditations from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons of England for its orthopedic simulations. Outside of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies have begun using FundamentalVR’s tools to research and develop drugs. The most notable example here is the pharmaceutical multinational Novartis, which used FundamentalVR’s training to help bring to market a new gene therapy which can allegedly help restore eyesight in some patients. FundamentalVR said that the pandemic accelerated interest in its platform even further since healthcare workers worldwide were forced to explore remote learning and training options.
A FundamentalVR spokesperson said many of the engineers designing the actual simulation spaces and characters actually come from the gaming world, though they work hand in hand with surgeons to accurately model the environments healthcare workers might interact with. The platform was built in conjunction with medical professionals at the Mayo Clinic and the University of California Los Angeles.
FundamentalVR currently offers a variety of complex simulations and said it plans to continue adding more as the system matures.
Before leaving the office, I was allowed to try my hand at an ophthalmologist training where a user is tasked with removing a cataract. During the simulation I wielded a pen that, once in VR, turned into a tiny scalpel. I looked through a virtual microscope which presented me with a close up view of a patient’s eyeball. After struggling helplessly to properly wield the scalpel, I finally said screw it and attempted to slice open the top layer of the patient’s eyeball. The sensation of the blade piercing the eye felt squishy, responsive, and utterly horrifying. Though I was told to make two small incisions using the scalpel, my untrained hands instead left the eye looking more like a couch after an unfortunate meeting with a cat’s paws. The FundamentalVR employees standing nearby graciously held back their laughter.
FundamentalVR’s platform clearly won’t transform just anybody into a surgeon but it sure as will give you some appreciation for the real ones!