Virtual reality (VR) is back in the news again with the recent releases of the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, which both offer a realistic VR experience powered by a gaming computer. By wearing a somewhat bulky headset, users are able to immerse themselves into a world that allows them to interact with virtual objects with some degree of haptic feedback. While gamers will enjoy this technology, others are bringing this technology into focus with a more down-to-earth usage.

In mid-April, a healthcare company called Medical Realities in London, UK, live streamed the world’s first 360 degree immerse operating theatre experience, transporting medical school students and others directly into an operating room to watch surgeons as they operated on a British colon cancer patient.

Using a Google Cardboard VR headset and an app downloaded to their own smartphone, members of the public, students, and surgeons alike were able to view the surgery on their own devices, and completely immerse themselves in the operating environment in a głobal educational experience.

The surgery was performed by Dr. Shafi Ahmed, who’s helping to pioneer VR technology in surgery. He calls the operation as a game changer for healthcare innovation and education. In 2014, he became the first surgeon to live stream an operation while wearing Google Glass. In full disclosure, he is also co-founder of Medical Realities.

The operation was filmed live using a number of cameras placed above the operating table but was broadcast on a slight time delay, in case of complications. Nearly 55,000 people tuned in worldwide to watch the surgeon conduct the procedure, which lasted two hours and 40 minutes. Most viewers were in the US and the UK, but the company noted that viewers included people watching from Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Chile, South Korea, Turkey, and China. Viewers included the patient’s own family.

Ahmed explained that he envisions the next step in three or four years would be to add additional components that would allow surgical users of VR technology to experience touch and feel of a virtual patient. “The idea would be to add gloves and interactive technology so that you could actually feel your way around,” he said. “What we want to do is actually create the virtual surgeon. You could have a patient in virtual reality, be able to pick up a scalpel, make a cut, and do a virtual operation first before doing it for real,” Ahmed said.

Certainly, medical school students would gain practical experience that would be of immense benefit for them and their patients by performing surgery in a “real-life” situation before making that first cut into actual flesh and holding a real patient’s life in their hands.

Oh, how much more might I have enjoyed taking Biology in high school if that darn frog had only been a virtual subject instead of a once-living amphibian?