A Boise State University team of nursing and gaming professionals developed a wearable technology that lets its nursing students practice complex simulations – at a lower cost than more standard training.

The Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety is a wearable technology that lets students see and interact with (touch, hold or grip) objects in the virtual environment – and participate in complex simulations (like catheter insertion) without the need for a human patient manikin.

“Using virtual reality in education provides students with opportunities to practice necessary skills in a realistic and low risk environment,” added Anthony Ellertson, director and clinical associate professor of Boise State’s Games, Interactive Media and Mobile program (GIMM). “Not only that, projects like this one provide a cost efficient solution for increasing access to medical training for nurses.”

The use of medical manikins in nursing education reduces prep time for clinical training, is expensive, says Ellertson: basic manikins can cost between $15,000 and $64,000 each – and many institutions don’t have enough manikins for all nursing students to get the practice they want and need before treating a real human patient. In contrast, he says, the virtual reality technology costs about $5,000 and new “games” can be created in four to six months.

The simulation uses Oculus Rift and a custom haptic (manipulation through touch) system similar to video game technology to give nursing students practice on common medical procedures. The simulation walks students through a virtual environment and scores them on how well and how quickly they complete a series of tasks, such as sterilizing the environment.

The university’s pilot study of the new technology showed promise in the students’ accuracy and ability to perform the actual procedures – at about one-third the cost of using a medical manikin. And last fall, the team won the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Cooperative for Educational Technologies’ (WCET) Outstanding Work (WOW) award for its new technology.

Now, the Boise State team is now applying for funding to expand its pilot program, improve the virtual reality platform, and possibly introduce new features, like tactile feedback.