Even with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), CT scans and ultrasounds, it's still a bit awkward for doctors to get a three-dimensional perspective of a patient's insides. A company called EchoPixel hopes to change that by bringing medical imaging into the virtual reality era with its True 3D system.
True 3D uses DICOM data, the same format used by every MRI scan, CT scan, or ultrasound image. With that data, EchoPixel renders interactive, 3D virtual objects that can, as founder Sergio Aguirre told Motherboard, allow individuals to "explore, dissect and share."
EchoPixel allows doctors to see certain patient structures—such as polyps or lesions—more clearly, and assess their potential harm. Aguirre said they can also develop a detailed surgical plan that takes into account complex interactions of arteries and other structures in the body, without having to hand-draw them. Surgeons will also be able to practice a procedure on an anatomically accurate model of the patient, which isn't possible with current technology.
"With the ability to more fully understand a patient's anatomy, doctors will be able to produce better outcomes for patients, in less time," Aguirre said. "Reducing time to diagnose or treat will not only benefit the doctors themselves, but will significantly reduce risks to the patient in question. In time, EchoPixel will be useful not only for treatment, but for medical education, for trainees and patients themselves."
Aguirre, whose past work includes the design of stereoscopic 3D systems, was inspired to create EchoPixel's interactive VR system because of past 3D visualization research. His past experience told him that virtual reality could make incredibly accurate bodily simulations a new reality.
"I realized that screening for colon cancer faced a big obstacle in compliance, as few people wanted to go in for a colonoscopy, and virtual colonoscopies, while helpful, were limited in what they could perceive," he said. "With the ability to see a patient's anatomy from many more angles, doctors could more accurately diagnose the need for a colonoscopy."
Increased public awareness of VR for entertainment purposes has probably helped push the technology to the forefront of medical imaging. But, as with the history of VR itself, the innovation hasn't exactly been smooth.
In 2013, Medical Design Technology magazine noted that past VR medical imaging research hit snags because of issues with poor screen resolution. But with the disorienting effects of image blur resolved with the Oculus Rift's 1080 OLED display, the medical field's VR imaging capabilities are sure to benefit. The screens will soon get cheaper and better, which means they will find their way into more clinical trials.
The EchoPixel software operates on multiple hardware platforms, Aguirre said, and will come to more in the near future. "We've worked with the hardware company zSpace on a desktop applications, but possible hardware platforms run the gamut in virtual reality and augmented reality systems," he said. "Right now, users need 3D glasses, but we're working to create alternatives as well."
Aguirre said that EchoPixel has been working with radiologists and surgeons to develop some key clinical applications in interactive 3D imaging. This clinical approach will help EchoPixel and other developers pinpoint the exact needs of physicians, allowing them to further refine the system.
"There have been pre-clinical retrospective trials, on multiple clinical problems at top tier hospitals including UCSF, Cleveland Clinic, and Stanford," Aguirre said. "Foxconn has also purchased EchoPixel for use in their healthcare research. From our clinical work, we've seen increased speed, and better results in real clinical applications."
An EchoPixel representative said that the company "is selling the True 3D Viewer software via three approaches. The first approach is a perpetual license that costs $75,000 for the basic software. As additional protocols are developed, such as for virtual colonoscopy, they will cost $20,000 per protocol. The other two approaches are a subscription license and pay per study."
Currently EchoPixel isn't available for real-time usage in operating rooms, but Aguirre said the team is working on it.
"I remember doctors showing me my esophagus with a camera probe they stuffed up my nose," he said. "They also showed me my stomach being coated with a liquid when testing for acid reflux. Could this be used in such circumstances? What other ways that haven't been enumerated? Any MRI/CT images generated from these procedures could be used with EchoPixel."
Just as VR will alter entertainment and journalism, VR medical imaging will change the way we look at medicine. While it should lead to speedier medical decision-making, it will also allow doctors to vastly improve their visual communication with patients. And this might well reduce the anxiety patients feel the moment they step into the doctor's office or surgeon's room.