man with goggles on with pink sky in the background

With the recent launch of Facebook’s Oculus Rift, that most-anticipated of first-wave VR headsets, the age of virtual reality is upon us. While the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear headsets have been hyped chiefly as gaming devices, they could have a number of roles to play in pharma marketing (as could Google’s open-source Cardboard viewer, which converts smartphones into low-fi ).

One obvious initial use case is for immersive mechanism of action presentations at conference pavilions. At the big American College of Cardiology annual meeting earlier this month, Boehringer Ingelheim offered attendees a VR experience exploring the mechanism-of-action behind their Pradaxa-reversal agent Praxbind. The MOA demo, developed by Confideo Labs, drew long lines at the BI booth. One prominent cardiologist, after viewing it, quipped that VR “represents a game changer” for medical education.

“Not only did it help us create a positive, memorable brand experience, it really helped us talk about the unmet need,” said Jalpa Patel, associate director for cardiovascular marketing at Boehringer. So memorable was the experience, in fact, that after the conference, reps reported that their cardiologists were still talking about it.

“That type of response is something I hadn’t heard before,” said Patel. “To get responses back from the field and to hear not only the sales force but the DM in charge of the conference say ‘Hey, our reps had the most engaging interactions at ACC ever,’ that they were able to dialogue with physicians and talk about the entire cardiovascular portfolio.”

The novelty factor makes it pop, but beyond that, VR shops say the technology delivers a uniquely engrossing learning experience.

“The combination of episodic learning and empathetic engagement achieved with VR is really unparalleled,” said Confideo founder Mike Marett. “The immersiveness of consuming media in a goggle also deprives other senses and keeps individuals fully focused on the visuals and the audio.”

“We use the terms ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ to describe different media,” said Keith Liu, SVP of products and innovation at Klick Health’s Klick Labs VR practice. “This is almost a full-body experience.”

We’re still a long ways from a holodeck, but Liu said it’s “a first step toward a much more immersive experience” that will incorporate haptic feedback for control, among other things.

“It depends on how many senses we can get to agree,” said Liu. “Right now, the head agrees with the eyes, but if I see something and I want to touch it, I can’t, and that breaks the magic.”

Already, 18% of U.S. physicians have used VR for professional purposes, according to DRG’s hot-off-the-presses Taking the Pulse® U.S. 2016 study, and demand is strong – three in five physicians express interest in using VR for medical training and CME, and more than half are interested in using VR to learn about new treatments and conditions, or at medical conferences.

You can imagine a wide range of educational applications for VR, from use by pharma sales reps to medical education to educating patients and caregivers on a disease, therapy or procedure. Pharmas could use it to produce interactive KOL programs and clinical trial results presentations or patient case studies. Where else might you slalom down the carotid artery or wend your way through an inflamed GI tract? And talk about scale – you can go from gross anatomy to the molecular or cellular level in the blink of an eye, exploring how a disease affects an organ or system in three dimensions, or tracking the biological journey of a new drug, its mechanism of action, efficacy and metabolism.

Some hospitals are already using VR for training, a function that will be of particular interest to device companies. Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital reportedly realized 80% retention of inf

information through a VR training module – up from around 20% using traditional means (Nicklaus is also the hospital where enterprising surgeons built a VR model of an ailing infant’s heart from a scan, allowing them to understand the problem from the inside out, as it were, and to successfully intervene).

“It’s been called an ‘empathy engine,’” says Confideo’s Marett, “because it’s so effective at transporting you into an alternate environment, like the body of a patient suffering from a painful chronic condition. You’re seeing the world from their perspective, and it really drives home what the patient experience is like.”

VR developers are platform agnostic, building to different headsets according to the demands of the project. High-end wired goggles might make sense for a congress experience, while wireless headsets like Samsung’s and Oculus’ will lend themselves better to an in-office experience, and Google Cardboard’s inexpensive flat-pack design might suit direct mail. Ditto for the gaming engines powering the animation.

Among other things, Confideo has employed its DoctorVirtualis platform to produce a Neuron Safari experience for the Oculus Rift, in partnership with Eyewire and Indicated, and the shop is working on pharma VR projects mixing rep delivery and mailers. Klick is working on “a few MOA and MOD” experiences, a surgical training experience and one for patients.

Of course, there will be regulatory compliance kinks to work out before pharma can establish a comfort level with the technology. Still, Confideo’s Marett said that they’re learning to anticipate M/L/R staff needs and prep materials accordingly. A typical experience takes them about ten weeks to build before hand-off to M/L/R, he said.

Marketers should always be wary of chasing faddish new technologies, but building expertise in VR now could pay dividends as costs come down and the sophistication of content accelerates. For Boehringer’s part, Patel’s team was able to win converts among both customers and colleagues.

“It was an interesting idea to leverage, but also a risk, as there were some nonbelievers internally,” said Patel. “We turned them into believers.”

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