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Medical Training Goes Holographic

Jul 11, 2013

Defense News Jul. 11, 2013 Lauren Biron — Costa Mesa, Calif. — First day at medical school? No problem. Just pull that guy’s heart out of his chest.

Don’t do it with a live person — that’s typically frowned upon by the courts. And don’t even bother with a cadaver — those can cost $5,000 to $10,000, each. Instead, advances in technology mean you can now turn to the virtual human and pull the heart out in a 3-D, holographic environment.

A system called zSpace uses a large screen, glasses and pointer — like a ballpoint pen — to interact with and manipulate 3-D images. The technology allows users to look completely around the object, examine it from all angles, and zoom in and out. It’s also finding its way into universities and will be used to train med students and future surgeons. One day, the doctor operating on a wounded soldier or diagnosing a veteran may have had his humble beginnings exploring a virtual body.

“It’s not like 3-D when you go to the movie; that’s actually one dimension,” said David Lenihan, dean of preclinical medicine and associate professor of neuroanatomy at Touro College in New York. The system will be part of a virtual laboratory set to open in fall 2014 at Touro. “You have to take the field of view that it gives you. With zSpace, you can look around.”

Lenihan said that from an academic perspective, virtual humans modeled with 3-D holography techniques will provide some benefits over cadaver dissections. One of the problems with real materials is how things shift after death — the vascular system is not quite where it would normally be; the muscle tone isn’t quite as firm.

“Your skill set is actually much better in the virtual world, because the relationships are better to real life,” he said.

Increases in computing power mean that processing complex, data-rich MRI scans or radiographs is now easier and faster. Computers can run the information-intensive models and present the image in robust, movable 3-D that you can seemingly pull out of the screen and spin around. While the virtual bodies dissected at Touro will be rendered objects designed with the University of Iowa, Lenihan said future applications on zSpace and similar technologies could pull data from real patients.

Another potential benefit of the holographic technology is the Magic School Bus-like ability to zoom down to the smallest scales and explore the body in ways you cannot experience in real life.

“We can pretend that we’re sitting in a blood cell and travel through the vascular system,” Lenihan said. As they float past a cholesterol buildup, users can turn their head to take a long look at the structure — and perhaps at their own eating habits.

Virtual bodies also allow teachers to customize learning cases for students. They can plop a tumor in a virtual brain, then turn the student loose to explore the body, find the malignancy, extrapolate the potential problems and conceive a treatment.

“It changes the game completely,” Lenihan said.

Touro College is the only school that has announced its intent to use zSpace, though it is being tested and evaluated in several unnamed university hospitals, said Mike Harper, zSpace’s vice president of marketing and products. Harper also indicated military interest in the medical applications.

“I spent half a day with the military, specifically looking at surgical training and planning,” he said. “They’re looking at zSpace as a tool where they can bring a cyber anatomy, a virtual human body into play, and save on things like cadaver costs.”

zSpace was unable to disclose the military official with whom Harper met, and no one from the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command could be reached for comment. But the Medical Training and Health Information Sciences Research group within the command has shown interest in medical simulation and training capabilities in the past. Some of their objectives include leveraging technology to maintain competency, ensuring “advanced medical simulation capabilities are ubiquitous,” and improving pre-hospital combat casualty training.

Harper said that surgeons could use the technology for planning reconstructive surgeries or, after additional testing and validation, for diagnostics.

The zSpace technology has applications for the Defense Department beyond just training their potential doctors. Giving individuals a chance to interact with dangerous or unavailable items can provide valuable training for members of the intelligence community or soldiers who will work with improvised explosive devices.

“You want to give somebody the ability to experience it in 3-D, because it’s a 3-D thing they’re going to have to go do,” Harper said.

The tool can also be used to organize and manipulate data in multiple dimensions, showing potential connections or anomalies that might be more difficult to represent in a traditional format.