Medicine meets Virtual Reality at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics

Amsterdam, 10 November 97 The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics is an applied research centre located in Darmstadt and actually functioning as a link between basic research and industry. Fraunhofer operates in three areas: visualisation, virtual and augmented reality. Rolf Ziegler is co-responsible for the visualisation and virtual reality section at the Institute where a VR room and laboratory were installed in 1993. At present, about 70 people are working there, namely a staff of 23 researchers and over 40 students. The Virtual Design system developed at Fraunhofer is implemented in several practical working fields such as the automotive and aerospace industries, mechanical engineering, urban planning, architecture and the world of medicine in particular.

In 1997, the Fraunhofer Institute moved to a new building with a high standard infrastructure where researchers are able to create virtual environments in a five sided cave and handle VR situations using VR peripherals like data gloves; panorama projection; haptic feedback; projection tables and even a motion platform. Undoubtedly tools equally used for medical virtual reality. Alternative to conventional methods of diagnosis, the Fraunhofer team has conceived a highly interactive medical training system for arthroscopy through computer graphics and Virtual Reality techniques.

The VR training simulator permits student-surgeons to get familiar with the intuitive handling of the instruments in a real time simulation of an authentic arthroscopy. Force feedback is of capital interest here and is getting continuously improved. Ziegler strains the importance of a realistic representation which can only be achieved by means of a well organised training protocol. In this way, the trainee is able to practice surgical techniques before facing a real patient. A second simulator has been developed for nasal endoscopy. At present, the Institute offers training on demand in workshops at hospitals and companies.

Next year's spring will reveal the publishing results on preoperative planning and intraoperative support by means of virtual reality. Before operating on a real patient, the surgeon can practice on a virtual one to select the safest and most effective approach which saves time in the operating room and should decrease the rate of complications. During surgery, superimposed synthetic data on the real patient form a precise guide to the surgeon's manipulations enabling him to act with greater skill. The position of surgical instruments can be monitored and displayed to the surgeon via monitors, according to Ziegler's explanations.

As you well might remember, we already reported about the National Library of Medicine projects in the VMW November issue. The Fraunhofer Institute has now used images from the NLM's Visible Human Project to reconstruct a human 3-D reference model. This must fit the need to create the operating room scenario for the future. The next step will be to shape an optimal synthesis of real and synthetic data including visual, aural and tactile senses in virtual environments to support the surgeon in his performing surgical interventions. An equally challenging issue constitutes the desire for virtual prototyping to design and test health care facilities. After evaluating the functionality of a virtual operating room, the real one could be built to perfection.

The coming years seem to have a lot of work in store for the Fraunhofer people. On the one hand, they will be focusing on augmented reality, on the other, they have to attend to the day-to-day livability of the Institute. Therefore, the simulators for arthroscopy and nasal endoscopy will be commercialised and assistance will be offered to spin-off companies. If you like to follow the latest virtual events at the Institute, please check in at the Fraunhofer site.

Leslie Versweyveld