Targeted use of VR in medicine requires detailed 3D visualisation and fast interactivity

Umeå 21 October 1999At the Department of Informatics of the Umeå University in Sweden, Dr. J.A. Waterworth has made an attempt to map and classify the vast spectrum of Virtual Reality implementation in medicine. The principal aim of this task consists in identifying suitable niches within the variety of medical VR applications, allowing to match them with Umeå's typical needs and areas of expertise, in order to concentrate its further research and development upon. This survey of the State-of-the-art of Virtual Reality in Medicine has been funded by the University's VRLab.


Dr. Waterworth's report constitutes a rich source of information. In seven chapters, the survey addresses the various techniques in medical VR; the major areas of application in visualisation, pre-operative planning, surgery, education, training, telemedicine, and physical and mental health and rehabilitation; as well as the free and commercial application sources and data set resources available. In addition, the study offers an extensive bibliography of references and a useful glossary of terms. The author also provides a short historical introduction to the topic and a recommendatory conclusion for future directions in VR research at Umeå.

The roots of Virtual Reality go back to the 1950s when VR simulation came in use to train pilots in aviation and aerospace industries. Later on, these techniques have been extrapolated to the medical profession where the work of a surgeon, when navigating within a human body, has a lot of similarities to that of a pilot. They both have in common a need for a great manoeuvring ability in a 3D environment, coupled to life-critical data access and decision making. To date, Virtual Reality is being applied in three surgical disciplines which are open surgery, endoscopy, and radiosurgery.

Section 2 of the report offers a wealth of illustrations, dealing with promising technical approaches in the medical VR domain. Shown are many examples of volume imaging techniques; surface and volume rendering; hybrid models; object modelling and behaviour simulating techniques; the different forms of feedback; tracking devices and visual displays; and use of augmented reality. Still, a lot of ground remains to be uncovered in the exciting areas of force, tactile, and sound feedback; olfactory cues; and the multi-modal integration of data. The integration of real world with virtual information and switching among the two requires a lot of investigation as does the accurate simulation of soft tissue behaviour.

In chapter 3, the author describes the current relevance of VR in operations, image-guided surgery, and pre-operative planning. VR in surgery differs from VR in other applications in that the visualisation is focused on objects rather than space. Real time response and precision thus are of utmost importance. As far as training and education are concerned, VR preferably has to support the deeper understanding of patient anatomy instead of overemphasising the practice of locomotive skills, according to Dr. Waterworth. Telemedical use of VR involves remote diagnostics, tele-operation, and telerobotics.

The creation of virtual environments to treat patients suffering from physical or mental disorder, and for people who need rehabilitation is less demanding on the level of detailed visualisation and interaction than surgical use of VR. This explains the success of VR techniques in fighting psychological phobias, like fear of heights, flying, spiders, ... Resulting from the survey, the author suggests that Umeå's major strengths for VR research & development are therefore situated in the areas of mental and physical diagnostics, skills rehabilitation, 3D visualisation, surgery planning, and building of integrated surgical training simulators. The full report is available for consultation at the Web site of the Informatics Department at Umeå University.

Leslie Versweyveld

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