Imagine if a recent amputee could learn to ski without risking serious injury. Or a bomb squad could disarm explosive devices with no risk of casualties. Or doctors could perform flawless surgical procedures before they ever touch a patient.
The Enabling Technology Laboratory in the UAB School of Engineering is such a place — a virtual-reality environment that can be used for a host of creative applications. This “visualization cube” is the latest expansion of the school’s computer imaging and simulation capabilities, and it will lead to revolutionary advances in medicine, rehabilitation, emergency management, training and education.
|Bharat Soni, left, and Alan Shih are shown inside the visualization cube, the latest expansion of the School of Engineering’s computer imaging and simulation capabilities. It is hoped the visualization cube will lead to revolutionary advances in medicine, rehabilitation, emergency management, training and education.
“This facility creates a virtual environment and multi-dimension visualization capability resembling a real world,” explains Bharat Soni, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “At UAB, we’re using this technology mostly for engineering and health-care applications, but the possibilities really are virtually endless.”
The virtual patient
To demonstrate his point, Soni shows 3-D volumetric images of CT and MRI scans on a screen in the laboratory. A life-size image of a human pelvis rotates on the screen, turning 360 degrees to allow the viewer to examine it from every angle. Such images provide much more information than the two-dimensional versions, but when projected into a visualization cube, the images provide an even more immersive environment.
Soni says he envisions a future in which doctors will use this technology with haptic devices that add the element of touch to the immersive experience and allow the wearers to feel sensations of heat, cold, pressure and resistance. “One goal is empower practitioners to go through a critical surgery in a virtual environment so that they can see exactly the issues that might arise before they enter an operating room,” says Soni.
Virtual patients also could reduce the need for cadavers in medical school classrooms. “The savings in time and expenses would be tremendous,” Soni says. “Imagine how much more efficiently students could be trained by performing procedures in this environment.”
Such capability, Soni says, would be a breakthrough for modern medicine, but perfecting the technology and actually incorporating it into hospitals is still five or 10 years away.
Menawhile, there are infinite other uses for this type of imaging technology — and UAB researchers already are exploring many of them.
Simulating the possibilities
Computer-imaging and simulation long have been strengths of the School of Engineering. Soon after Soni arrived at UAB in 2002, the school set up the Enabling Technology Laboratory that uses the 3-D and high-definition visualization technologies. Lab Director Alan Shih, Ph.D., and his team can simulate and visualize wind currents through cities, blood flow through arteries or airflow around a car or airplane.
On one side of the lab, two projectors beam images onto mirrors, which reflect onto a large screen. This creates a 3-D image when viewed through polarized glasses. On the other side, a similarly sized screen is separated into nine tiles that show images from nine precisely aligned projectors for a combined resolution of 3,000 x 2,300 pixels.
Using these two screens, researchers are able to view 3-D images of medical scans and simulations of mechanical issues such as wind-resistance and airflow. “By creating a visualization of airflow, you can study chaotic behavior, such as turbulence,” Soni says. “By visualizing these things on screen, you can see how the air would flow around them, thereby eliminating much of the time that would otherwise be spent machining parts and testing them in a wind tunnel or laboratory.”
The technology has even broader applications. In a recent study for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, UAB researchers were able to create a virtual model of Chicago to study wind currents through the city. This allowed them to provide information to first responders about the ways contamination would spread through the city in the event of a chemical accident or attack. A similar model was produced for New Orleans to show population movement in the event of a mass evacuation.
“By entering the relevant data, the computer will simulate precisely the way such an event would play out,” Soni says. “You can see exactly where the problem areas are likely to occur. Of course, you can’t anticipate exactly how events might transpire during a disaster, but this simulation gives you a chance to see where the potential problems might arise and plan accordingly.”
The concepts from those large-scale simulations also could be applied to medical scans. “You could input patient-specific diagnostics and simulate blood flowing through the veins, for example,” Soni explains. “This could help a physician determine whether to insert a stent or to perform a bypass operation. Simulation technology allows you to get that information quickly with less stress on the patient.”
Putting it into practice
However advanced, the simulations and images are only images. They can provide tremendous amounts of information, but still there is a gulf between visualization and application. The new visualization cube will help bridge that.
Soni’s team is exploring collaborations with the School of Health Professions and Birmingham’s Lakeshore Foundation that will enable patients to perform rehabilitation activities in this controlled environment. “This is an exciting area in which to expand our 3-D capabilities because it has so many practical applications,” says School of Engineering Dean Linda C. Lucas, Ph.D. “In this virtual environments you can see the limitations and the areas that are showing progress, and all this is done with minimal risk to the patient.”
For example, amputees often are taught to water ski as part of their therapy in order to strengthen their muscles and improve balance. The cube can become a lake, and with the help of haptic and other devices the patients can experience virtual skiing.
“It also gives the patients the feeling of actually participating in these activities,” Soni says.
“This allows them to build confidence and a comfort level that is very important in rehabilitation.”
While the possibilities are exciting, Soni says medicine and education lag in the use of 3-D technology. This past year, he says, the University of Florida filmed a football game in 3-D. “Of course, viewers had to wear glasses to get the 3-D effect, but if you have seen it once, you will never want to watch another game on a two-dimensional screen,” Soni says. “There were 15 movies scheduled to come out in 2009 in 3-D and Samsung and Philips are manufacturing 3-D televisions, so the entertainment industry is definitely a step ahead in getting the technology out there.”
Soni notes, however, that children are being exposed to such exciting technology daily, yet schools are teaching from textbooks and using the same methods established decades ago. “We need to find new ways to incorporate technology into education,” Soni says. “At UAB we’re already using simple computational simulations to introduce high-school students to basic engineering concepts, but we need to get more of those innovations into the classroom.”