UAB virtual enterprise turns 3-D simulations into teaching, rehabilitation tools

[From The Birmingham (Alabama) News]

UAB virtual enterprise turns 3-D simulations into teaching, rehabilitation tools

By Anna Velasco — The Birmingham News
November 30, 2009, 11:50AM

Virtual reality has gotten a lot more real.

It has, at least, at the UAB department of mechanical en­gineering, where faculty and students are working on a three-dimensional lab that will allow simulation of everything from surgery to skiing snow­covered slopes. The University of Alabama at Birmingham got the hardware — known as VisCube — for the lab earlier this fall, and engineers are writing software for use in many disciplines, including medicine, dentistry, physical therapy and engineering.

A person wearing specialized glasses can step into an area with screens on three sides and immerse into a simulation. The person can “touch” and interact with the simulation by waving a motion-tracking wand.

The engineers are still in the design phase of the software, but they anticipate creating programs that not only allow surgeons to practice a particular operation but to practice it on a virtual replica of the patient they intend to operate on. The simulation would depict the patient’s height and weight and take into account any complicating health factors, such as diabetes.

“The beauty of it is as we have a doctor or researcher who wants to study situa­tions, we can write a program for it,” said Bharat Soni, chairman of the mechanical engineering department. “There are many complicated surgeries. Having surgery done in virtual reality using patient­specific data will prepare doctors before they step into the operating room.”

Real use of the virtual reality system could begin as early as the end of the year. The lab will be used to educate medical students about anatomy and to train residents on procedures before they test their skills on patients, Soni said. UAB is in discussions with the Department of Defense to create programs that train paramedics to do surgical procedures in the field in emergencies when no doctors are available.

While UAB is focusing on health care applications, the system has possibilities for many disciplines, including education and engineering. For example, engineers could use it to test the integrity of structural designs before construction starts.

Rehabilitation will be a strong focus of the simulation system, which will allow a safe environment for physical therapy patients, said Harold Jones, dean of UAB’s School of Health Professions. For example, a person recovering from an injury might be able to practice canoeing and keeping his or her balance. As the person improves, conditions could be made more challenging.

“From a training perspective, to be able to bring your performance up to speed before you actually have to perform is a real advantage,” Jones said.

Although UAB has only one VisCube system now, the hardware is not too expensive to replicate in patient care settings. The hardware being tested now costs about $250,000, Soni said.

Another application will be in cognitive behavioral therapy, such as treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder or phobias. For example, a person with an intense fear of spiders could be immersed in a simulation where spiders are crawling all around.

“We can ramp it up and down, depending on the person’s reaction,” said Cali M. Fidopiastis, assistant professor of physical therapy and an expert in virtual rehabilitation. “Right now the calibration will be done manually, but over time, feedback sent from the patient will allow that to be automated.”

Unlike 3D movies that display impossible scenarios, the 3D system at UAB is realistic.

“This is science-based simulation,” Soni said. “We apply physics to make sure what we show is physically possible.”

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