Road to Birth delivers world-first virtual window into pregnancy

Friday, 2 March 2018


A ground-breaking development in virtual reality (VR) technology at the University of Newcastle (UON) has given world-first visual insight into the internal stages of childbearing and its effect on the human body, signifying a huge step for health practitioners and expectant parents globally.

Virtual Reality

A digital journey through gestation

Through the use of a digital headset, Road to Birth takes users on a journey through pregnancy, depicting a life-size female figure in front of them, whose gestation can be explored and observed.

Incorporating a pregnancy timeline, key anatomy and circulatory systems, as well as expert commentary from experienced midwives at each stage of pregnancy, users can employ the program to investigate the internal changes as the baby develops.

A collaboration between UON’s School of Nursing and Midwifery and IT Innovation Team, key features include crucial birth considerations like the baby’s orientation and placental positioning.

Bridging the gap in midwifery education

With childbearing and postpartum stages challenging to teach with current resources, Road to Birth offers students a world-first opportunity to follow a detailed, realistic and 3D figure through a pregnancy without any visual barriers.

Project lead and Lecturer in Midwifery, Mr Donovan Jones, acknowledged the delivery room could often be a dangerous place, with common issues such as the incorrect positioning of the placenta having the potential to be catastrophic.

“At the moment we teach with dolls and pelvises, and I can tell you firsthand from being a student as well as an educator, the position of the placenta is one of the hardest things to learn, and yet it’s absolutely one of the most imperative things to know.

“If a midwife can’t identify its position and lets the woman go into natural labour with the baby obstructed, the baby’s life is at serious risk – simple as that,” Mr Jones explained.

With around one in 25 babies born in a breech position and one in 100 presenting in a position other than the ideal vertex, Mr Jones said the new program was vital to significantly transform the future of midwifery education.

“First year midwifery students come into the program and within the first semester are going out and witnessing their first birth. They’re exposed to situations that have the potential to be confronting.

“Not only will this application introduce them to the realism of anatomy, but it bridges the gap between classroom and delivery suite to ensure cognitive resilience, which is going to make them perform better under pressure.”

On trial in early 2018 with midwifery students in Newcastle and Port Macquarie, Road to Birth is the next step in the School of Midwifery’s success with utilising VR training.

Available for Android, iOS and PC, UON has implemented Road to Birth via HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens headsets, as well as mobile app.

“With Road to Birth, the educator can pop on their HoloLens and project the imagery in front of the class as they walk through the simulation. Our students can then either immerse themselves fully with the VR headset or take the application home on their device to learn in their own time, at their own pace.

“We know that individualised learning is incredibly effective and everybody learns differently, so Road to Birth is a game changer in that it’s giving our students a new way and the time to visualise and fully understand the significant impact these common occurrences in the delivery room can have,” Mr Jones stressed.

A new technological delivery

UON has established itself as a leader in the VR field, with its neonatal resuscitation simulation receiving impressive accolades in 2017. IT Innovation Manager, Mr Craig Williams, said the tailored, user-driven resource was a continuation of UON’s ground-breaking work in virtual education.

A new father himself, Mr Williams said he knew firsthand how difficult it can be to find visual resources and was excited to see the real-world impact.

“Pregnancy can be a daunting time, with expectant parents often left to rely on health professionals and online tools to fully understand the significant changes in their own bodies.

“The scope of Road to Birth is clear, with its impact having the potential to reach a global audience, from students and health professionals in cities and remote locations, to expectant parents wanting to understand more about their pregnancy.

Keen to continue the evolution of the application, Mr Williams said Road to Birth’scapability would evolve to meet the needs of future users.

“As an educational resource, it’s totally immersive and we can eventually look at introducing the program as a procedural task and testing. We have the ability to collect the data and see how well students are learning from it, how long it’s taking and what they got stuck on.

“We’re providing students with a safe, repeatable and realistic environment where they can practise techniques and learn from their mistakes before entering the workplace,” Mr Williams said.

Outside of its immediate use in teaching, the application has potential to help expectant parents visualise the changes that occur during pregnancy, in order to better understand their development.

Continuing the labour

Supported by CSIRO’s On Prime acceleration program, which helps research teams validate their work and discover real-world applications, Mr Jones is hopeful Road to Birth will eventually aid a multitude of health professionals as well as the wider community.

“The opportunity is huge for this to help rural communities or even in countries where the health practitioners don’t speak the same language.

“Imagine you’ve lived remotely all your life – you may not know what anatomy or physiology even mean, but we can visually show you what’s happening internally and how that might affect you. It has the potential to break through all barriers,” he said.