Dutch researchers create interactive,
in The Netherlands say have created an interactive 3D medical imaging
system, using visuals that clinicians and researchers can not only view
head-on, but can actually walk around and through.
“There are so many applications,” said Peter van der Spek, PhD., who led
the development of the I-Space virtual reality theater at Erasmus
University Medical Center in Rotterdam. “The first step is just
realizing what you can do with it.”
The development of I-Space was recently reported by the Radiological
Society of North America, on its web site at
Envisioning how the technology can be used not only for research but
also in diagnosis and treatment decisions, a company spawned by the
project, Crosslinks, is working to develop and market the invention
elsewhere in Europe and around the world.
Historically, viewing a 3D image really meant looking at the image on a
two-dimensional screen and then rotating or zooming in on the image to
“see” around the scanned object.
However, I-Space, powered by 3D volume-rendering software that digests
massive amounts of image data, uses eight projectors on four walls and
the floor to create a 3D image in a special viewing arena. Users can
then interact with the image, seeing its depth by wearing special
glasses with polarizing lenses.
Gene mapping project was model
With a background in molecular genetic research and engineering, Dr. van
der Spek, professor and head of the Department of Bioinformatics at
Erasmus, was uniquely suited to bridge the gulf between 3D-rendering
software and its medical and research applications.
Returning to Erasmus – where he previously had trained – a few years ago
after working with pharmaceutical companies on the human genome mapping
project, Dr. van der Spek recognized that the same virtual reality
software and technology used to map genes could have broader
cross-disciplinary applications. Within three years he and his team had
made Erasmus one of the first medical centres in the world with its own
3D imaging theater.
I-Space takes data from MR imaging, CT and ultrasonography and renders
images for projection in three and four dimensions. The images can also
be “played” back with a time component that allows researchers and
physicians to see real-time animation, enabling analysis of elements
such as irregular heartbeats or the movement of muscles.
Multidisciplinary uses encouraged
Dr. van der Spek joined Ronald Nanninga, M.Sc., to found Crosslinks, a
company that aims to help medical personnel tackle large datasets with
I-Space and other advanced visual information software.
The pair said they have reason to be excited about I-Space’s potential.
As Dr. van der Spek was helping develop the system over the past few
years, he was also priming other departments and disciplines to take
advantage when it was ready to launch. As a result, the theater already
has proven useful for examining cardiovascular and neurological systems
and in the study and measurement of fetuses.
Child development researchers, in fact, inspired an important addition
to the system. Clinicians studying early pregnancy wanted an imaging
system that would give them precise 3D measurements of developing
embryos and, with some software improvements, I-Space can now provide
those measurements using ultrasound scans. The system also allows
enormous enlargement of images for very detailed measurements, said Dr.
van der Spek, and the measurements can be compiled into a
“medical-pedia” used to screen for early indicators of abnormal
The 3D imaging in I-Space can also be applied to microscopic images,
wherein the rendering of a large stack of cell images can help
researchers find biomarkers for applications such as in cancer,
cardiovascular and other disease areas.
While the I-Space system is still too costly to apply to every
individual diagnostic case, said Dr. van der Spek, clinicians could use
a 3D room to convene a multidisciplinary team and determine the best
interventional approach in complex cases. Moreover, he added, the system
can also be used to train clinicians to use both 3D and 2D imagery.
Medical professionals who have trouble understanding 3D elements within
a two-dimensional image, he said, can use I-Space to work with true 3D
images and improve their decision-making skills even when working with
Financial and logistical barriers must be overcome
With the ambition of becoming a significant specialized player in the
medical imaging market in the next 3 years, and partnerships formed with
companies such as Silicon Graphics Inc. and Barco to aid in marketing,
delivering, installing and supporting the hardware, Dr. van der Spek,
Nanninga and others at Crosslinks acknowledge that I-Space theaters
likely won’t be popping up around the world right away. Acquiring an
I-Space system requires substantial financial, logistical and structural
commitments from a site, they said.
“At the moment we are talking with several medical centers in Europe to
see how we can help them improve their research, diagnostic and
educational capacities,” Nanninga said.
What proved critical during the development of I-Space—and may well be
important for its proliferation—is a cooperative multidisciplinary
environment, said Dr. van der Spek.
“Information technology can be very difficult and inaccessible to
clinicians because they’re not trained in it,” he said. Using the
complex technology effectively, he said, “depends very much on the
culture within the institution and to what extent different groups work
together.” He said he found that his engineering and medical background
helped him cross disciplinary borders.
Among the possibilities Dr. van der Spek visualizes for I-Space is the
installation of 3D theaters near, if not actually within, operating
rooms. Dynamic 3D scanning and rendering offered by the theater, he
said, would help surgeons instantly see and adjust to the needs of their
The full text of an article explaining one application of I-Space,
“Dynamic 3D Echocardiography in Virtual Reality” published in
Cardiovascular Ultrasound, is available at