surgeons operating

Medical Tech That Really Gets Under Your Skin

An innovative augmented reality system could soon let surgeons get a real-time view of your insides, projected onto your outsides.


Thanks to new technology developed by researchers at the University of Alberta, doctors might soon be able to see into your body without a trip to the operating room. The new augmented reality system called ProjectDR, projects medical images like CT or MRI scans directly onto a patient’s body, for a real-time view of internal anatomy.

Using a combination of infrared cameras and markers on the patient’s body, ProjectDR not only aligns the images with the body, but also allows them to follow the patient as they move, kind of like an actor in a motion capture suit.

Developed by computer science PhD student Ian Watts, ProjectDR could lead to unprecedented levels of accuracy during surgery, potentially reducing surgical error and costs associated with follow-up surgeries.

“[The system] adds more context to the data and allows for more interaction,” explains Watts. “It is difficult even for experts to have an accurate idea of where internal structures or organs are under the skin, so having a system which allows them to see objects of interest while they are working and directly at the site of the work is useful.”

ProjectDR also allows the user to display only certain parts of the image, showing for example only the organ or only the surrounding blood vessels.

Watts and his co-supervisors, Pierre Boulanger from the Department of Computing Science and Greg Kawchuk from the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, soon hope to test the system in a surgical simulation laboratory at the University to help identify potential uses and how the system affects interaction and perception during medical procedures. Kawchuk also hopes to pilot the system as a teaching tool for chiropractic medicine and physiotherapy.

“Having the patient’s medical data, like an x-ray or CT scan of the spine, projected onto their back allows the clinician to see where they need to press and potentially reduce discomfort or errors in the process,” says Watts.

Until then, Watts is working on improving the system’s calibration and potentially incorporating depth sensors to automate alignment.

Microsoft HoloLens is working on a similar augmented reality surgical tool with ApoQlar’s Virtual Surgery Intelligence division, but unlike Watts’ projection system, the HoloLens requires the user to wear a headset, which may be distracting or difficult to sterilize. Watts also notes that the HoloLens is limited in its processing power since the hardware must remain lightweight enough to wear or remotely connect to a separate computer, which could introduce lag time.

“Advanced visualizations like volume rendering high resolution CT scans in real time are best performed on a computer with more graphical computing power,” says Watts. “A projection system can use as much hardware as desired without affecting the other equipment.”

Whichever system ends up being more popular, it’s clear that the future of medicine is changing. How long until we don’t need the surgeon at all?

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.