AR and VR technology may eclipse use of 3D-printed models

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Three-dimensional printing of anatomical structures has made rapid advances in the past few years, but a new kid on the block may soon supplant it.

Augmented reality and virtual reality—supported by advanced imaging technology and moved forward by powerful computing and graphic capabilities—is on the cusp of becoming a key way to visualize body structures and aid clinicians who will be performing procedures on them.

The user tools that enable virtual and augmented technology are still early in development, noted Justin Sutherland, assistant professor in the department of radiology at the University of Ottawa, during an educational session at last week’s annual conference of the Radiology Society of North America.

AR and VR employ three capabilities that make it suitable for medical applications, Sutherland says. It helps users with visualization, virtuality (the extent to which it blends the real world with images) and perspective generalization (tracking capabilities that enable users to see their own perspective of the object.

AR and VR eventually will offer advantages over creating 3-D models. One is the cost—even as 3D printing technology advances, there’s still a price to pay to make them. Another is the speed with which such models can be made—AR and VR offers the promise of enabling clinicians and patients to see, examine and manipulate body structures.

However, clinical grade technology to support AR and VR is one area that is lacking, panelists noted. Current visualization equipment primarily was designed for gaming, which may not be appropriate for medical use cases.

Beyond improving the tools to enable clinicians to work in a virtual world, input tools—those that enable the user to interact with the image and manipulate it by rotating it and resizing it to see different perspectives. “The last puzzle piece is input capabilities that allow for intuitive information access,” Sutherland said.

Clinicians can find advantages in viewing anatomical structures with AR and VR, said Edward Quigley, MD, a radiologist in the department of radiology and imaging sciences for University of Utah Health. Visualization technology enables clinicians to add annotations and other information to images, and to add color segmentation to differentiate structures.

Still, more work lies ahead before AR and VR technology can be used in daily clinical practice, and clinicians will need to adapt to use the new environment, the panelists said at the RSNA session.

Research by Nicole Wake, assistant professor in the department of radiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, shows benefits for 3D printing, with estimated savings of about $1,000 per procedure when the models are used in tandem with surgical interventions.

Wake says a survey of clinicians found that many expressed a preference for 3D models in surgical planning. “Some say they just love the feel of the model in their hands,” she said. “Or maybe they feel limitations in putting on (AR/VR) glasses. Surgeons do express a preference” for the models.

However, her research did not show consistent results across all physicians. For example, some experienced clinicians said they preferred to manipulate structures with AR and VR.

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