Duke 3D software opens door to medical and consumer applications

April 30, 2007

Engineers at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering have come up with software that twists the data composing volumetric ultrasound images into stereoscopic views, creating images that appear to float off display monitors into 3D space. The software splits the single ultrasound image into two separate images 7° from each other -- one seen by the right eye and the other by the left.

Engineers at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering have come up with software that twists the data composing volumetric ultrasound images into stereoscopic views, creating images that appear to float off display monitors into 3D space. The software splits the single ultrasound image into two separate images 7° from each other - one seen by the right eye and the other by the left.

"The eyes can fuse those images in the brain either with no additional help or with stereo glasses like at 3D IMAX movies," said Stephen Smith, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke. "A number of companies are working on true stereovision displays that will allow them to be seen without glasses."

Philips Medical Systems showed an example in March at the European Congress of Radiology in Vienna. A big-screen LCD running specialized algorithms turned flat medical images into 3D reconstructions that appeared to hang in midair (DI SCAN, 3/13/07, Wall-hung flat panels transform earthbound images at European Congress).

"Medical ultrasound could ride along on those innovations," Smith said.

Thousands of 3D ultrasound systems in clinics could be upgraded with such software, he said. Built into ob/gyn ultrasound systems, the software could support a better evaluation of the fetus. Craniofacial malformations of the fetus might be more apparent.

But the potential does not stop there. The Duke press release suggests the use of this software to make keepsake DVDs of the fetus, which "could also be viewed at home in 3D stereo," Smith is quoted as saying.

Fueling consumer interest in such software is a video running on YouTube depicting in 3D a "model human fetus" - an ultrasound phantom - prepared with the Duke software. The university's press release provides the link and challenges the viewer to "see if you can fuse them without goggles."

Attesting to the appeal of such keepsakes are the 200-plus 3D ultrasounds now residing on YouTube.

This nexus with consumer applications has led some medical experts to caution against the use of medical ultrasound for keepsake videos, fearing that unnecessary exposure, even to nonionizing radiation, may be harmful. Smith is uninterested in how the software he and others have created at Duke might be used.

"There are always issues with new technology," he said. "I really don't have a position on that."

Smith is not trying to lay the groundwork for commercializing his brainchild, certainly not for consumer applications. He and his colleagues are focusing on advanced research applications of ultrasound with plans to integrate the newly developed software into new probes, including an ultrasound-enhanced laparoscope. Ultimately, their work could lead to real-time 3D sonography that can guide a robotically controlled surgical instrument to its target (DI SCAN, 11/6/07, Commentary: Welcome, robot). Smith notes how the use of stereo vision has already proved useful in optical endoscopes.

"It could be stereo 3D will have equal value, when doing laparoscopic surgery under ultrasound guidance," he said.