Engineers Eliot Winer, left, and James Oliver have developed technology that converts 2-D medical scans into detailed 3-D images that can be used to plan a surgery or teach a lesson in anatomy. They worked with Thom Lobe, a pediatric surgeon based at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, to establish a company,, to market and sell the technology. (Credit: Bob Elbert/Iowa State University)

IOWA STATE (US)—James Oliver picked up an Xbox game controller, looked up to a video screen, and zipped through a patient’s chest cavity for an up-close look at the bottom of the heart. Oliver was using new software that allows doctors to take an accurate, 3-D tour of a patient’s anatomy in advance of surgery.

It’s a view doctors can shift, adjust, turn, zoom, and replay at will. The software— based on virtual reality technology developed at Iowa State University—uses real patient data from CT and MRI scans. The technology allows doctors to plan a surgery or a round of radiation therapy and can be used to teach physiology and anatomy.

Two-dimensional imaging technologies have been used in medicine for a long time, says Eliot Winer, an Iowa State associate professor of mechanical engineering and an associate director of Iowa State’s Virtual Reality Applications Center. But it can be challenging for anyone other than specialists to read the flat images.

“If I’m a surgeon or an oncologist or a primary care physician, I deal with patients in 3-D,” Winer notes.

Winer and Oliver, an Iowa State professor of mechanical engineering and director of the university’s CyberInnovation Institute, began to develop technology that converts the flat images of medical scans into 3-D images that are easy to see, manipulate, and understand.

Thom Lobe, a pediatric surgeon based at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, helped the engineers design a tool doctors could use. The software is currently being sold by an Iowa startup company called The company is now marketing the software as “Simple. Visual. 3D.”

The company and its 13 employees have also been busy earning the required approvals from the Food and Drug Administration, developing a Web site, and beginning to make sales, says Curt Carlson, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

“This is a fantastic technology,” Carlson adds. “More and more doctors are going down this path.”

Oliver, Winer, and Carlson like to quote a doctor who told a reporter that when preparing for complex procedures, “2-D is guessing and 3-D is knowing.”

“3-D visualization is used all the time,” Winer says. “But for the medical field it’s a paradigm shift. And once doctors understand the basics of our software, they don’t understand how they lived without it.”

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