Since early March, New York City has suffered the most acute outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. As of the time of writing, the NYC Department of Health has recorded 171,723 cases of COVID-19 — well over ten percent of the 1,171,510 national cases reported by the CDC.
Kevin Ching, a physician at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York Presbyterian Hospital, realized that the knowledge hard-won by medical workers in New York City might save lives elsewhere, in areas of the country that haven’t yet been impacted by the pandemic. Ching wanted to create a VR video that demonstrated best practices, especially for medical personnel operating in regions and communities without a large teaching hospital.
Ching reached out to Kyle Cassidy, a staff member at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, to discuss a fast-tracked collaboration with Weill colleagues Neel Naik and Amos Shemesh. Earlier this year, Cassidy received a Penn Model of Excellence Award for his transdisciplinary work with virtual reality (VR), and one of Cassidy’s past projects was readily translatable to the COVID-19 training that Ching, Naik, and Shemesh were envisioning.
Cassidy had partnered with Penn Nursing in 2018 to create a VR Narcan tutorial for medical professionals. Narcan is a nasal spray which can reverse an opioid overdose, and its administration requires training. The VR Narcan tutorial, in fact, proved to be as effective as in-person instruction.
In March, when the possibility of a campus lockdown in response to COVID-19 became a certainty, Cassidy checked out VR cameras from the Penn Libraries’ Vitale Digital Media Lab with the sense that they might prove useful.
Cassidy has a long working relationship with Vitale manager David Toccafondi, with whom he co-founded the Penn Working Group on Virtual Reality and with whom he collaborated on the Narcan project. Toccafondi recognized the potential of VR when it first became commercially available and procured two Oculus Rift headsets for use by anyone on campus.
This early investment has resulted in an advanced degree of VR expertise among Vitale staff. “From the Media Lab’s inception,” says Toccafondi, “it’s been my goal to make available technology that people wouldn’t normally have access to.” Another priority has been the creation of interdisciplinary communities, both on Penn’s campus and beyond. “Technologies like VR cut across every discipline,” Toccafondi says. “The centralized nature of the Libraries brings together people in the Media Lab who might never meet otherwise.”