According to Deloitte Digital, around one-third of first-time hospital visitors get lost or confused. Even hospital staff can report being confused about critical locations, with a quarter saying so. Other reports find upwards of 40% to 50% of first-time hospital visitors get lost. That’s a lot of lost people, and depending on why they’re at the hospital, it could be a really bad time to be confused.

Hospitals can be massive campuses with many different buildings, parking lots, and entrances, leading to confusion both outside and inside buildings. While the anxiety this causes patients and their families is one side of the problem, it can ultimately lead to complaints and a change of a hospital’s rating with the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS). The other is a hard cost to hospitals due to late arrivals and resulting schedule backup, staff time spent directing people around, etc. Hard to estimate, but over the course of a year, it adds up.

Hospitals are already spending a lot of money on signage, digital kiosks, and other wayfinding systems. But after using AI to make themselves more efficient, there’s also a huge opportunity to integrate the technology of virtual and augmented reality at different stages of the experience.

Virtual reality for hospital wayfinding

To improve wayfinding, virtual reality has the greatest potential before the patient or visitor ever sets foot on the hospital campus. Using a virtual tour or an interactive map, hospitals can provide a powerful way to see the path from parking to final destination and back.

While sales of VR headsets are on the rise (IDC reports more than a 50% increase in VR headset shipments in 2019), not everyone is going to own or have the desire to put on a VR headset. Gaming still leads all VR headset demand, although the use of enterprise-level VR hardware and software is expected to rise dramatically. That will surely impact healthcare in many ways, from the operating room to wayfinding. We’re seeing it already: researchers at West Virginia University are using VR to study wayfinding; virtual hospital tours have been around for several years, and we’ll see a lot more of these tours with VR-ready functionality, like this tour of The Christ Center Health Network. My company, Concept3D also worked on this tour of Oregon Health and Science University.

Upon scheduling a visit, hospital staff or automated emails/text messages could easily provide recommended parking locations and a link to a VR-enabled wayfinding tour. It’s important to add that these tours do not require the creation of a virtual hospital. It’s much easier to build a VR-enabled tour by using software like PTGui that “stitches” together 360-degree panoramic images of the healthcare facility. This is efficient, the technology is readily available, and — perhaps most important — the tour provides the patient or visitor with visuals of exactly what they are going to see on site.

Additionally, some VR tours integrate with hospitals maps. Humans understand maps, making them a powerful wayfinding tool. Today’s digital maps can provide a broader, bird’s-eye view, with the ability for the user to dive in for more detail, locate other areas of the hospital (e.g., restrooms, cafes, etc.). Some maps also offer the ability to locate amenities outside of the health care campus like nearby hotels and restaurants.

Several studies, including a 2018 report from the University of Maryland, have found that experiencing something in virtual reality benefits memory retention, and VR can go a long way to improve the overall patient wayfinding experience.

Augmented reality for hospital wayfinding

While currently there are currently no hospitals publicly using AR for wayfinding, there are some projects in the works. For example, the Rochester Institute for Technology worked on a project in collaboration with Rochester Regional Hospital to create  prototypes that demonstrate the potential for mobile augmented reality wayfinding for hospital visitors and staff.

In a healthcare setting, AR has incredible potential: Imagine holding up your phone and seeing an arrow guiding you along the path. In 2018, another complex public space, Gatwick Airport, introduced an AR wayfinding system that uses 2,000 battery-powered beacons throughout the airport. With indoor GPS challenges, beacons make a lot of sense, and are relatively easy to install and maintain. Gatwick was able to set up the hardware in around three weeks, followed by a few months of testing.

While wayfinding is at the core of the technology, there are other uses as well, from the ability for airlines to send updates via text message, to promotional offers from airport vendors. According to Abhi Chacko, head of Gatwick Airport IT commercial and innovation, “By providing the infrastructure we’re opening the door for a wide range of tech-savvy airport providers, including our airlines and retailers, to launch new real-time services that can help passengers find their way around the airport, avoid missing flights or receive timely offers that might save them money.”

So, while it might be odd to receive a 25% off coupon to the hospital deli, text updates about an upcoming appointment — with directions for how to use the AR system to guide people through the healthcare facility — have huge potential for improving the patient and visitor experience.

VR and AR will improve hospital wayfinding, and we’re going to see a lot more of these systems in place moving forward. The technology is available today, and in ten years I’m confident that we’ll all be surprised by the innovative application of these systems for wayfinding in healthcare and many other industries.

Robert Johnson is Vice President of Sales at Concept3D, which combines 3D modeling, interactive maps and VR-enabled virtual tour software to bring any physical location into an intuitive and navigable digital format for space planning, wayfinding, data visualization, and asset tracking.