Heart of the Matter: Virtual anatomy lessons could revolutionize education

Brendan Polley
Friday, July 4, 2014 - 1:22pm
Blake Eligh

A new digital animation technique developed by UTM biomedical communications student Brendan Polley is attracting attention from as far away as Silicon Valley. His work could revolutionize anatomical illustrations for the medical and education communities, and beyond.

Through his recently-completed master's research project, Polley created a new method of depicting three-dimensional anatomical models that are easily manipulated and examined from any angle. The models, which are manipulated with an inexpensive pocket-sized device, are accurate, cost-effective and quick to produce.

Polley’s work solves a perennially difficult problem of biomedical illustration—specifically that in order to examine or document a specimen, it must be taken apart, dissected, or rendered in cross-section or a puzzle-like exploded view.

“When you’re dealing with models of anatomy, there’s no real empty space. Everything sits next to something else—organs, vessels and nerves always sit flush with adjacent structures,” Polley says. “The only way to access those deep structures is to strip away.”

Working with the mammal hearts studied by first year biology students, Polley uses CT scans as templates, and then digitally “paints” on textures with illustration programs. To keep the models from becoming visually cluttered, Polley employs traditional illustration techniques such as shading and reflected light to help denote where the objects are in virtual space. He also adds features such as a glow that grows brighter as the user virtually “touches” different parts of the model. The whole process takes about two weeks.

hands on computer screenUsers virtually manipulate the model using a LeapMotion infrared device that is slightly smaller than a deck of playing cards. Often used in digital gaming, Polley’s project is the first robust application to employ the LeapMotion device for medical use. The device picks up the motion of the users hands and projects it onto the computer screen. As the user moves their hands, virtual hands can grasp and turn the virtual model to examine it from any angle. Users can also select or highlight objects with a simple pointing gesture. The device, which costs about $80, is affordable, portable and intuitive. “Seeing the [virtual] hand respond to your own hand makes the interaction much more realistic,” Polley says. “The field is definitely changing as new technologies become available.”

Polley intends his models to be used as interactive teaching tools. The hearts include animated blood flow simulations, and he has integrated a quiz component to simulate “bell ringer” tests in the dissection labs. Just like the real-life lab experience, “students have a minute to pin it,” Polley says.

hand pointing to heart on computer screen“Education has always been my passion,” he says. “I want to create enriching and meaningful experiences for students around science,“ says Polley, who holds a BEd from OISE, and an MSc from UTM where he focused on paleontology under the direction of Professor Robert Reisz. Previously, Polley taught high school-level biology and physics for three years. A growing interest in technology and teaching tools led him to create mobile applications to help students study biology terms. It wasn’t long before he decided to take that love of teaching and technology back to school, and he enrolled in UTM’s biomedical communications program.

He is excited by the challenges and possibilities of this new illustration technique. “Biomedical Communications is a really unique program—this is really the only place that something like this can be made,” says Polley of his time at UTM. “Here they understand the value of creating these types of resources, and they have the technical know-how to help you get it done.”

Polley plans to release his work through LeapMotion’s app store, AirSpace,  so anyone could download it and use it. With more development, Polley says that his research could be applied to surgical simulations, distance learning, or to replace or supplement dissections in labs. 

Watch Brendan Polley's application in action: