2/25/19 VR pharmacy

One of our reporters tries out a virtual reality headset that simulates a radioactive spot test.

Pharmacy students will soon be able to gain more hands-on experience with virtual and augmented simulations that will be implemented into the program.

Steven Abel, a pharmacy professor at Purdue, teamed up with the Envision Center to create a virtual cleanroom: a sterile environment where medications are prepared. Cleanrooms are common in hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.

The Envision Center specializes in virtual interactive simulations, scientific visualization and analytics, human computer interactions, video production and publication graphics, according to the Information Technology at Purdue webpage.

Virtual and augmented reality have become more mainstream in recent years as respective headsets have become more affordable and accessible to the general public. Virtual and augmented reality may seem similar, but they are actually used quite differently. While both typically involve a head-mounted device, VR is a complete immersion into a virtual world. A user would put on a headset and enter a virtual world in which they can interact with the world and the objects within, to a degree.

AR is not nearly as immersive, instead blending one’s surroundings with virtual elements. With an augmented reality headset, there is still a screen but it is transparent. This leaves the user exposed to the real world, and the headset overlays projections onto the real world through the screen.

The idea for the pharmacy program began when Abel was invited to take a campus guest to the Envision Center to experience a virtual reality tour of the campus and thought of applying the idea to a pharmacy cleanroom since Purdue does not have one.

Abel is also the founder of Penguin Innovations, a Purdue research foundation company created to commercialize his project to other universities, institutions and third-party companies.

George Takahashi, a research programmer from the Envision Center, explained that the purpose of the virtual cleanroom is for “teaching compounding procedures and technique.”

“We wanted to expose pharmacy students to the cleanroom environment before they go on to their clinical rotations,” Takahashi said, referencing the final step of becoming a pharmacist.

In the past 10 years, the platform has grown from accessing about 10 or 12 separate medications to 73 medications.

“Minimum standard, the cost would be at least a million dollars,” Abel said, referring to the expenses of a real cleanroom.

Abel explained regulations regarding sterility change on a regular basis and become expensive to maintain. The cost of drugs and equipment are another expense.

“If we were to do this all virtually, then we could just reprogram the computer,” Abel said. “The cost is far more minimal.”

Abel believes another advantage of the virtual simulation is that the lab only allows for limited access, whereas the online training is accessible to students at any time.

Kara Weatherman, a nuclear pharmacy professor, has also teamed up with the Envision Center to work on a new form of instruction that utilizes augmented reality for students to better visualize elements of pharmacy that have no visual component, such as radiation.

Purdue is one of four universities in the U.S. that includes nuclear pharmacy as part of the pharmacy curriculum. AR is another unique factor in the department.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is take things that are not visual, right, all these concepts that happen but you can’t see them,” Weatherman said. “And how do I demonstrate that for the students?”

Her answer? Virtual and augmented reality programs.

Weatherman’s programs are essentially games, as she admitted, but with the purpose of giving students safer, visual and more accessible scenarios that mimic the real world.

One of Weatherman’s programs focuses on the visualization of radioactivity.

“When handling radiation, as it is an invisible force, it is not very intuitive what kind of exposure you’re getting,” Takahashi said. “So if you want to limit your exposure, so you don’t get any adverse effect, you need to know your quantities.”

While in the past Weatherman would videotape her students’ techniques on where to hold and how to handle radioactive instruments, examine the video and then provide critiques on where they could improve, this method was ultimately too time-intensive for Weatherman to continue with.

“Unfortunately for us, radiation safety is, ‘Just be careful’ ... and I wear a badge that says how much radiation I get, but I only turn it in once a month. ... Right now, all we ever do is say, ‘Just think about where the cone of radiation is,’ and trying to picture that in your head,’” Weatherman said.

With her new augmented reality program, students will be able to see that cone of radiation when they wear a Microsoft Hololens, an AR headset. While students will see a real-world object, the software will simulate a cone of radiation onto it so students can then learn how to reduce their radiation exposure. The technology is still lagging behind, though, as Weatherman noted the specific device’s field of view is limited to a small box, which can make using the software somewhat counterintuitive.

The second program Weatherman is working on is an entirely virtual experience, involving the use of a virtual survey meter. A student would wear a VR headset and two paddle-like controllers in each hand, that appear as a survey meter in the virtual world, to scan for hidden radiation spots that have been placed in the virtual landscape.

This specific program will be implemented into her class in the fall 2019 semester. Weatherman is still working on the final scenarios; there will be roughly 20 scenarios in total that can be randomized with different radiation sources in each module.

The software itself is rather dynamic, Weatherman said, and while it is currently being used for nuclear pharmacy, any department could change the assets and tweak the software to implement a completely different program.

Weatherman is also using VR to train students to use some of the higher-end equipment right here at Purdue.

“We have this piece of equipment that’s about $200,000 ... and it’s been put here so the students can interact with them. But every time they do something wrong, there’s potential it’s going to be broken,” Weatherman said.

The equipment in question is Purdue’s radioactive generator, which does exactly as its name suggests: generates radioactive materials. However, Weatherman and the Envision Center created a mockup of the equipment that allows students to practice the procedures in virtual reality before trying it out in the real world.

“When you graduate from Purdue, you’ll have a badge that says you’re competent in the use of this piece of equipment,” she said.

Like the previous software, this could be applied to any advanced machinery to provide risk-free training.

The final challenge for Weatherman is finding if these programs actually work as intended. Can VR prepare students for real-life scenarios?

“And that’s a huge part of what we’ll have to assess in this process is, ‘does this mimic it close enough that you can correlate what you’ve done in the virtual world to what you would actually do in the real world,’” Weatherman said.

With the pharmacy department to be the first to implement VR and AR into its programs, the question is: Who’s next?

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