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Microsoft HoloLens
Image by Microsoft

In April 1996, I posted a story here about the Visible Human Project. A prisoner in Texas spent his life as a drug abuser, alcoholic, robber and killer. In 1993 the state of Texas injected him with lethal chemicals and took his life away. Through a federally funded project built from a prisoner who had willed his body to science. The body was frozen and then sliced from head to toe. High resolution photographs and CT scans were taken from 1,878 slices of the Visible Man. The results were used to reverse engineer the human body and put the digital model on the World Wide Web for all to see. Gray’s Anatomy had been replaced and medicine would never be the same again. See a gallery of images here.

Now that a human body had been reengineered it became possible to perform human simulations; i.e. moving a muscle or emitting blood after a scalpel cut through the skin. Future possibilities seemed boundless. We would be able to age and de-age the Visible Human, amputate an arm, add a torn ligament, introduce a heart attack or throw in a bullet wound. Doctors would be able to perform angioplasty insertions and actually experience the feel that would have been present if he or she were inserting into the arm of the Texas prisoner. Kinetic models based on real human data would surely lead to artificial knees that someday may run a marathon. Perhaps with enough computing power the Visible Human would be able to sit or walk or run, opening up amazing simulation possibilities for sports medicine and saving of lives.

Despite the potential of the visible human, medical students today learn about anatomy the same way they have for decades — in dissection labs from cadavers and a scalpel. The labs are costly, difficult to manage, and don’t give all the students equal access. One U.S. university is planning to teach the next generation of medical students with augmented reality. Microsoft has developed an augmented reality product called the HoloLens. Wearing the HoloLens goggles allows students to see a virtual human in the room. They can navigate through the layers of skin of the 3D representation of a body to the muscle, blood vessels, organs, and the skeleton underneath.

The product and the data to support it need a few more years of development to be able to replace the cadavers, but the future is clear. Like most things in the real world, medical education is moving to the virtual world. Early tests indicate students can see some aspects of anatomy with augmented reality more completely than with cadavers. As the technology expands, each student will have full access. See the full story here. Read more about medical education in Health Attitude.

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