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Using immersive technology to enhance human anatomy teaching
When Dr. Christian Jacob first embarked on his journey with the LINDSAY Virtual Human team at the University of Calgary, he envisioned the team creating a world resembling the 1966 film The Fantastic Voyage where a team of scientists shrinks down to a microscopic size to learn more about the human body.
While his initial vision is alive and well, the current technology has evolved to include elements from films like The Minority Report and Star Trek, such as motion tracking technology and augmented reality.
“What keeps me attracted to technology is realizing things that everybody has seen in movies,” Dr. Jacob says. “When you look at most of the technologies found in Star Trek, we have them in a way that’s better than how they were originally portrayed.”
The LINDSAY team uses these technologies to help teach complex subjects like human anatomy in new and exciting ways. While technology like augmented reality glasses is fairly new, the current applications for researchers are endless.
Using specialized glasses and a motion camera, a subject interacts with a virtual model of the human body in real space. With a few simple gestures he is able to extract the muscle system from the body and render the image onto his own skin. As he moves his arms he can see how the muscles are laid out in his body.
The prototype is currently in its early stages, but the potential applications to learning are endless.
Revolutionizing the learning process
Dr. Jacob says when the department of Undergraduate Medical Education in the Cumming School of Medicine first approached him, the objective was to create an interactive 3D computer model and database to make advanced anatomy more accessible to new students.
“We started to think about how we can enhance anatomy teaching by creating virtual specimens,” Dr. Jacob says. “We developed an anatomy browser called LINDSAY Atlas using more than 3,000 parts of the human body that any student or instructor can combine to create into a subject.”
The specimen database is set up similar to Apple’s iTunes in that students can browse and search for specific diagrams and interact with organs in a 3D environment on a computer or tablet or touch table. The 3D models are provided by LINDSAY’s industry partner, Zygote Media Group, which was the 3D model provider for the now closed Google Body program.
“We began building our anatomy software on an iPad because when we started in 2010 the iPad had just come out and that made a huge difference because suddenly we had a proper interface to give a good sense of space,” Dr. Jacob says. “On an iPad you can point directly to an anatomical part with your finger and highlight the elements or dissect the heart, for example.”
After the success of the initial database, Dr. Jacob wanted to take the program to a new level by allowing students to become immersed inside the human body.
A new level of immersion
The LINDSAY Atlas was an important step to build the database and create the individual models for the human anatomy. But it wasn’t quite the immersion that Dr. Jacob dreamt of, and the technology isn’t yet available to shrink a person to molecular size.
The technology does exist, however, to make things larger in a digital world through virtual reality. Using video game engines and virtual reality, the LINDSAY team has simulated a cellular system that can be monitored by a viewer through virtual reality goggles in real time. With the same display technology, one can enter and explore a Giant Walkthrough Brain.
But goggles aren’t the end-game for the LINDSAY team. As Dr. Jacob and his team explain, the products are developed under a universal framework to make it easier to publish the products on a variety of platforms.
One platform that Dr. Jacob and his team are excited about is the Cave virtual reality system. From the outside looking in, the Cave looks like a miniature movie theatre, but once equipped with 3D glasses the room transforms into an incredibly immersive virtual experience.
The design of the room creates a panoramic experience for the audience, and the glasses allow head tracking so the perception of the camera always matches the perception of the viewer. But what differentiates the Cave from other forms of virtual reality is that it can be used as a group experience.
Rather than being isolated by a set of goggles, groups can experience the Cave together and instructors can explain the importance of the various elements of human anatomy with stronger visuals. With more advancements in visualization and interaction technology, the possibilities seem endless for the LINDSAY team to make the magical “universes” of the human body accessible and possible to explore for everybody.