Virtual Exam Shows Just Where Software Is Going

WASHINGTON (05/03/2000) - I was fearing an immature prank when I went along to check out a reception hosted by the organizations working to build Internet 2 where you could allegedly "stick your head up someone's butt."

But it was no prank. It was the Virtual Pelvic Floor, an animated representation of a human rectum and anal canal transmitted over the Internet.

And the researchers demoing the system relished the role they were playing, easily roping the voyeuristic attendees into exploring a virtual reality where they could poke their heads "inside" to view the color 3-D images of the anatomic region.

It is amazing technology. I had never before seen a polyp or how they hide in the folds of the colon. Doctors who specialize in colorectal disease are said to rave about the application, which ultimately will be used to train faraway surgeons by putting them in touch with top specialists at major research facilities. Eventually, they will be able to simultaneously view images of a patient's pelvic bone, blood vessels and even muscles involved in defecation, all sent across the broadband expanse of Internet 2.

Virtual Pelvic Floor images appear on an ImmersaDesk system, which resembles a big-screen TV tipped at an angle like a drafting board. Developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Lab, ImmersaDesk uses virtual reality because the technology provides a better way to view three-dimensional structures than other media, and makes use of stereo vision for better depth perception and viewer-centered perspective.

Once a user enters the virtual environment, the device tracks his or her head position in relation to the image displayed on the ImmersaDesk and alters the three-dimensional view within the environment accordingly. This feature allows the user to interact more realistically with the objects within the virtual environment to give the sensation of total immersion.

ImmersaDesk and applications similar to it are beginning to demonstrate some of the practical uses of virtual reality, which rarely fails to impress, but sometimes leaves observers wondering just how it can be applied to anything beyond a video game. But medical educators who teach pelvic floor anatomy are fully confident that virtual reality applications will increase the likelihood that doctors will be able to identify anorectal disorders, a precursor to colorectal cancer.

Another virtual reality tool that researchers are literally getting into is called the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. (CAVE). The projection-based VR system surrounds the viewer with four screens arranged in a cube made up of a trio of rear-projection screens on the three walls and a regular screen on the floor with a projector overhead.

Much like the ImmersaDesk, the CAVE requires users to wear stereo shutter glasses and a head-tracking device. As the viewer moves inside the CAVE, the correct stereoscopic perspective projections are calculated for each wall. A second sensor and buttons in a wand held by the viewer provide interaction with the virtual environment.

There wasn't a real CAVE being demonstrated at the Internet 2 reception, and I asked researchers what kinds of scientific breakthroughs might be achieved using the system. I got an intriguing response about a particular type of fly and the length of its sperm's flagellum.

A scientist who had studied this particular fly was amazed to discover that while viewing the creature's sperm in the CAVE, the whip-like appendage used to propel the sperm is actually about as long as the fly itself. Exactly how this discovery might further mankind isn't clear to me, but it's probably only a matter of time before something viewed virtually in the CAVE will help improve the quality of human life.

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