'It feels like you're playing' - radiology students using virtual reality to get practical experience

Christchurch's polytech is pioneering a world first training technique, allowing students to get practical experience in virtual reality.

Christchurch's Polytech is allowing students to get practical experience in virtual reality. Source: 1 NEWS

The technology is being used to teach medical imaging students at the Ara Institute of Canterbury, but there are some big names on the waiting list.

It's not often a New Zealand polytech has an edge on Harvard, but they're just one of many institutions lining up for this ground-breaking tech.

James Hayes, a lecturer in medical imaging at the institute, says students are working in a simulation environment.

"But there's nothing different in this environment than there will be in the hospital. So as soon as they go in they're going to be technically competent."

Mr Hayes is also the mind behind the new software.

"I asked them could to make it so that it looked like a virtual reality x-ray room rather than a virtual reality game. And they said 'within reason, yes' and I said 'well let's not say within reason, let's say we want to make it identical'," he said.

It feels like you're playing, it doesn't feel like I'm learning - Canterbury student

Before this, training was performed on decommissioned x-ray units, but the new system is now moving practical experience into the 21st century.

For the students though, the technology is fun.   

"It feels like you're playing, it doesn't feel like I'm learning," one young woman said.

Mr Hayes said: "You could have students practising at the weekend. And what they don't do at the weekends is read textbooks. We know that from experience."

Usually it'd be too dangerous to x-ray unnecessarily, so a virtual patient is used.

"Radiation is quite dangerous, so we want to make sure our students are technically competent before they go out into the environment," Mr Hayes explained.

But using the headset, and a healthy amount of coaching, even a novice like 1 NEWS reporter Sam Clarke can be taught to produce a passable x-ray.

To do this procedure in real life the machine would cost around $750,000, but now for the first time students can go hands on in virtual reality, Clarke reported, still wearing the headset after producing an x-ray.

"And I can tell you from being inside it, it feels all too real," our reporter said.

Mr Hayes said the students "will have far more clinical experience when they get to the hospitals than they have before or anyone else in the world".

A bit of Kiwi tech and know-how is helping to make virtual learning a reality, Clarke reported.