After years in the making, earlier this month, Apple launched its mixed-reality (MR) project through the Vision Pro headset. The device, which could be called Reality One, is designed to provide an immersive experience to users by enabling them to access advanced technologies, including Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The Metaverse–a space for the physical and digital worlds to collide– is often perceived as a risk and challenge due to its new approach and reliance on accessible technologies. As a result, hesitancy remains around the Metaverse’s role in healthcare. Yet, as murmurs of its relevancy and mentions of measurable potential in the Metaverse develop, many industry insiders question whether its influence in healthcare is about to take off.

Apple’s fight for the top spot

GlobalData forecasts the metaverse market will be worth $627 billion by 2030, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34% between 2023 and 2030.

GlobalData is the parent company of Pharmaceutical Technology.

Apple’s significant research and development (R&D) strides in the Metaverse came as other giants, Microsoft and Meta (previously Facebook), announced intentions and plans to pursue the Metaverse.

In November 2021, the then Facebook (now Meta) announced a plan to focus on the Metaverse. Shortly after, Microsoft revealed it was ploughing $70 billion into acquiring Activision Blizzard, the video game leader, to pursue, in part, its Metaverse goals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google Trends research found that ‘Metaverse’ was one of the trending technology terms in 2021

Although the three giant’s R&D activities simmered away simultaneously, Apple’s latest launch comes when Meta’s contribution to the Metaverse has been perceived as lacklustre. Following the launch of its Meta Quest Pro mixed-reality (MR) headset in October 2022, disappointing sales figures present Apple with the opportunity to take its new release into the mainstream healthcare Metaverse space. 

Accessing information and education

The Metaverse is increasing our ability to access information and education about our health. “One of the main benefits of the Metaverse for learning is the ability to create immersive and interactive experiences that can engage and motivate learners in a way that traditional methods may not be able to,” Dr. Jane Thomason, interim chair of the World Metaverse Council, told Pharmaceutical Technology Focus.

“The Metaverse could play a pivotal role in revolutionising access to health information and education,” Tobias Schaffner, senior consultant of disruptive technologies at Ernst & Young, told Pharmaceutical Technology Focus. The possibility of leveraging immersive and interactive virtual environments enables users to explore, learn, and engage with health-related content. Leading tech companies, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, want to be at the forefront of this new era of healthcare.

Latest developments

Recent innovations in Metaverse-enabling hardware, particularly cutting-edge VR and mixed reality headsets, “present promising advancements that are likely to raise public awareness and drive adoption among interested groups”, Schaffner says.

“These technological advancements hold the potential to unlock new applications and pave the way for pioneering use cases, ultimately benefiting patients and the broader life sciences sector,” Schaffner details. However, connectivity is required throughout the sector to maximise the appeal and uptake of a healthcare Metaverse.

“It is important to acknowledge that the Metaverse is based on various interconnected pillars, and continued progress and evolution across all these different pillars are essential to fulfil the Metaverse’s potential at a larger scale,” Schaffner adds.

Developments have emerged in integrating the Metaverse concept in healthcare in recent years, Thomason shares. Practitioners employ VR applications for pain management during medical procedures, psychological therapy to tackle phobias, and rehabilitation programmes ranging from children to older people. AR has been used to overlay medical information onto real-world objects, aiding healthcare professionals in diagnosis and treatment planning.

Telemedicine platforms with Metaverse elements allow patients to consult virtually with healthcare providers, enhancing access and lowering geographical and social barriers.

Virtual support communities and patient education programmes within Metaverse-like platforms have also gained traction, Thomason says, fostering peer support and knowledge sharing. Data-sharing concepts enabled by distributed ledger technologies have gained some attention recently too.

Scientific support grows

Notably, researchers have delved into the science and opportunity behind a Metaverse for healthcare in the past two years.

In a 2022 study, researchers stated that extending the Metaverse to healthcare could have “a profound impact on clinical practice and human health”. By creating a Metaverse of ‘medical technology and AI’ (MeTAI), they said the combination of technology could support the development, prototyping, evaluation, regulation, translation and refinement of AI-based medical practice, particularly medical imaging-guided diagnosis and therapy.

Another 2022 research study reported that healthcare systems found integrating Metaverse and healthcare will enhance the allocation and utilisation of resources.

Decentralised Autonomous Organisations may dominate

A shift from Web 2.0, which centres on reading and writing, to Web 3.0, focusing on reading, writing, owning and participating, will enable the shift to the Metaverse, Schaffner highlights. “Built on open-source software by an open community of co-developers, the Metaverse is by default all about community and collaboration,” says Schaffner.

Hailed as the company structure of choice, pharmaceutical companies are exploring Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs), which create the multi-stakeholder communication needed and incentivise network participation. DAOs are community-led entities with no central authority. “Everyone with a stake in a DAO can make proposals regarding its future,” says Thomason.

Ideally, the move towards community and collaboration edges closer towards electronic health records (EHRs). It empowers patients to control who can access which information and, subsequently, may impact how researchers conduct future clinical studies.

However, there is a need for more central governance, Schaffner says, mainly where sensitive data is concerned, which the community of users and policymakers is currently addressing. “All this is forcing a radical rethink in how companies approach digital opportunities,” Schaffner adds.

“I truly believe the life sciences and healthcare sectors–and patients in particular–stand to emerge as major winners in the move toward the Metaverse,” Schaffner details. Scientific research, innovation and success stories help champion Metaverse developments. Does it mean Apple’s latest launch will be the breakthrough technology? Time will tell.