Augmented Reality Assistant in Life Sciences

Laurence Weir, Biomedical Engineer
By: Laurence Weir
Medical Technology Lead
14th July 2021

During my time working in a biochemistry lab, my work was often degraded by certain aspects of my character which were not suited to the demanding accuracy and diligence of the job. This is probably why I did not end up being a scientist. I hated keeping my lab book up to date. I got bored from following long laborious protocols. I would take short cuts rather than concentrate on repeatability and conformity. Lastly, wearing lab specs would irritate me and so I would end up taking breaks more often than was probably required.

Since the creation of the current generation of virtual and augmented reality, I have been wondering what a killer app may look like. A mixture of severe motion sickness, undelivered promises of immersivity, or a simple lack of real work benefits have made me quite skeptical about the technology in general. However, I believe that augmented reality can overcome many of the issues that I had with working in laboratories, and so real benefits can be realized.

In contrast to Virtual Reality, where the wearer is placed in a fully generated environment by blocking out all peripheral vision, Augmented Reality overlays the transparent frames of the wearer with inserted graphics, and information.

The issue of forcing people to wear new glasses or goggles when they aren’t traditionally required, is a definite reason why it has a much higher barrier to adoption. Marketable uses of augmented reality should be focused on those situations where people need to wear eye protection as standard. This could be construction, medical situations, or the life sciences.

Where augmented reality could introduce real benefits in a commercial sense is the next highest priority. For instant, construction workers AR applications could highlight hazardous areas, or correct tool usage. The issue with this being used as standard, is that the construction industry already had extensive Health and Safety requirements to keep all workers and visitors safe. Signage is mandatory and rigorously enforced. Also, experience with tools is something that needs to be learnt, and making sure overlay are neither patronizing or annoying will be difficult.

Certain medical workers could in theory get benefits from an AR overlay to their vision. However, in normal (non-pandemic) times it is clear that only a small subsection of workers wear eye protection. Regardless, one could envision a surgeons vision being enhanced by AR to highlight aspects of the surgical procedure, as well as documenting a clear log of the surgery for later analysis.

AR in construction or medical environments do not compare to the benefits I see in the life sciences.

The easiest benefit to realise is also one of the largest; a means to properly document every part of a scientific experiment automatically. The technology incorporated in the AR glasses could record details from when every step of a protocol took place, as well as environmental factors, unexpected events, and alterations that were required. After any experiment, the scientist could simply review the procedure by downloading the details on their computer.

As part of a series of experiments, scientists may be asked to perform protocols which may only slightly vary. These changes to a protocol are tested extensively to extract significant parameters. However, trying to repeat experimental results can be very difficult. There is a significant problem of steps being left out or inserted by mistake, and the scientist is left to try and work it out errors by memory alone. AR would offer the scientist a constant visual list of what they had had done, are currently working on, and what is next.

There are times when performing any protocol in a lab, and it is simply not possible to document what variables are being changed deliberately, or inadvertently. Examples could include the exact time something is left to incubate, or specific temperatures of parts of the assays. Simply having to check what machines have been calibrated or not can be difficult to track. When trying to work out why day to day results vary so much, and not being in possession of a photographic memory, laborious notetaking and reviewing is the only way to identify what is important and what is not. An AR system would be able to document many of these variables automatically and put them in the experiment write up.

The cost of AR glasses is considerable compared to standard lab specs. There would also need to be apps which are tailored to specific labs, depending on the environment, equipment and reagents used. However, given the cost to set up labs, and run experiments, the one off cost of expensive AR glasses becomes insignificant very quickly, especially given the cost benefits of better and more reliable experiments being achieved.

Therefore, the life sciences offer the most attractive entry point to AR into the market. The benefits are clear, can be introduced incrementally, and easily tailored to different companies. They will greatly improve the utility and efficiency of scientists.