The Metaverse and Healthcare Design

By Aran McCarthy

Everyone is hearing the word “Metaverse” and for most, including myself, we have a very limited knowledge of what it fully means or could be, and that’s mostly by design. Just as soon as this piece is completed, many more angles and applications changing this innovative world will have come to life.

So, what is the metaverse? In short, many believe it will become the next generation of the Internet, connecting people, places, technology, experiences, in an immersive and interactive world. It’s the confluence of artificial intelligence and technology to create virtual spaces away from physical spaces. For those who know the world of Star Trek, it is the holodeck of experiences created in the cloud. Venture capital investment in this space has reached a staggering $120 billion since 2020, and technology companies are rapidly embracing its potential to change our everyday lives. If investment and interest continues at this pace, some of the smartest people on the planet will be hard at work. Alongside this growing metaverse space is artificial intelligence which will allow vast quantities of data to be analyzed and outcomes or treatment paradigms to be recommended.

So how will the metaverse impact the design and future of healthcare spaces? As we know, much of the metaverse technology comes from the gaming world, and the rapid enhancements that have allowed us amazing visualization of the spaces we design. We can create photorealistic designs and have the ability to walk-through these spaces with our clients and their occupants before they are even built. However, the real impact of the metaverse will be the next generation of interaction – the ability to feel textures, temperatures, measure the occupants’ physical reactions to an environment, and then store this data in a measurable, relatable, interactive learning environment. As of this writing, you can play 18 holes of photorealistic golf at Pebble Beach using VR headsets, but imagine if you could experience the smells around you, the sun on your face, the feel of the golf shot, and learn to play golf better. That could be in our future.

As healthcare designers, we create and build from three-dimensional models in Revit. A current application, or crossover from modeling to metaverse, is called “Twinning.” For example, we can virtually design and physically build a cancer center in one location and create a twin model anywhere else in the world. This twin model can be used as a live interactive learning lab, where medical procedures can be done and learned from. In basic terms, if it’s learned that casework is not needed in a space or that it is more useful in another location, it can be moved or removed.

As we know, caregivers vary greatly in their style and human interaction. If we could create a platform that studies and analyzes this interaction to generate the optimal outcome for both the caregiver and the patient, that would be game changing. Another rapidly changing field in healthcare is imaging––we now have hybrid operating rooms with robotics. If the metaverse allowed us to create accurate three-dimensional models of every patient, with every organ and tissue in place, think of the impact on complex surgery planning. It could take some of the potential treatment complications for unknown conditions out of play. We currently have some very high-tech equipment for the 3D visualization of spaces and this includes the human body, but the metaverse could be the connecting link to better patient outcomes.

So, what are the constraints in imagining this future for healthcare design? The answer itself may lie in our ability to create the technology and computing power. We have all heard that the computing power used for the NASA Apollo moon missions is a microgram of the computing power we now hold in our smartphones. Technology and computing power has exponentially grown and compounded in the last 30 years, and this growth will continue exponentially, as we create the next versions of microchips. It’s not only computing power, but our ever-expanding ability to store and intelligently access and harness this data in the cloud. This is one of the reasons we are building so many data centers.

Many of us ask how this will influence the design of healthcare spaces today, and what we should be considering within our projects to help make them metaverse ready. The common theme appears to be the use of technology and the ability and capacity to gather, store and use data. Hospitals and health systems should take every opportunity to build great networks of data gathering and storage capacity for this coming wave of data. Technology infrastructure will become extremely important within the health setting, so build it to the best of the available technology we currently have.

We will also need enhanced education, and a wave of trained staff that will interact with this data and make it useful and educational. Unfortunately, 2022 – 2023 has seen this technology workforce cut back, but I believe this will be a temporary rebalancing for market conditions. Hospitals are creating learning labs, simulation centers, and suites within the hospitals geared towards educating patients and staff on phone applications and interactive apps. This continued education helps staff assist the older, less technologically inclined patients navigate and embrace the newer technology, thereby increasing their caregivers’ access to them.

The patient room of the future, as we envision them today, contains vast quantities of interactive, data-generating technology. As the metaverse grows, this ability to interact even further with the patient will grow. The room will learn from the patient, and the caregivers will have even more tools to diagnose and treat patients. This is also true outside of the hospital setting, where interactive wearable technology has seen substantial growth over the last few years. We will also be able to re-create a patient’s own home bedroom, complete with furnishings, in a virtual or metaverse world, within a hospital setting, allowing a greater sense of comfort for the patient.

As healthcare designers and architects, we need to embrace this innovation and technology as it drives our future interaction with the world around us, and the metaverse world could be a large part of it.

Aran McCarthy, AIA, NCARB, is President of FCA.