Touch-Screen Cadavers: Virtual Solutions to the Shortage of Medical Corpses

Alison K. Lanier

A good medical cadaver is tough to come by. The availability of corpses for medical study is increasingly—and apparently pressingly—scarce.

Nvate An@tomedia digital dissection software haptic technology medical research app shortage of medical cadavers

This is a screenshot from An@tomedia’s digital dissection software.
Credit: An@tomedia

What better solution to the problem of the scarcity of a good than to make the good itself unnecessary? An@tomedia is doing just that. They are replacing the need for medical corpses for student study with the logical solution to create a digital alternative.

Translating Body to Webpage

The software, according to the product website, will produce “a comprehensive, self-paced learning program that explores anatomy from four perspectives [to] teach you how the body is constructed, from regions and systems, and how you can deconstruct the body, with dissection and imaging techniques.”

Effectively—as grisly as the straight-out description is—the program comes with a litany of early recognition from the British Medical Association and Australian Teachers of Media, among others.

The simplicity of the solution answers a scenario which, as Digital Trends paints it, is one in which “Dr. Frankenstein would find a challenge.”

“So to solve the shortage of real dead folks, anatomists decided to create virtual ones,” according to Digital Trends.

The software is the result of 20 years of carefully collected data on real dissections and professional knowledge of the “slow, meticulous process” of “slicing up a stiff,” as Digital Trends reported.

Building from the Bones Up

The mastermind and “early pioneer” of alternative dissection tech is Norman Eizenberg, an associate professor at Australia’s Monash University in the department of anatomy and developmental biology.

This specific, educational goal—a self-guided website— is by no means where the useful new tech is intended to end. The developing spread of haptic technology would make all the complexity of an actual dissection and reduce it to, for lack of a better analogy, the level of an app.

While a glass slab with digital images cannot replace all the tactile details of a hands-on study, the ease and cost-effectiveness of digital dissection is a very useful first step for the huge accumulation of data. The minds behind the initiative to push the data forward, into its touch screen embodiment, are no less than the CEO of Baltech, an Australian sensing and simulation tech company, and Robert Rice, who uses his doctorate in anatomy to build “virtual astronauts” for NASA.

Replacing human bodies with digital alternatives for medical instruction is not an entirely novel practice by any means. In just one example, a 2011 paper by Michael Head, Carl A. Nelson, and Ka-Chun Siu details the operation of a “Modular Joystick Design for VR Surgical Skills Training.” For obvious reasons, it is far, far more appealing to think of a nervous medical student performing their first surgery on a patient who is not physically real and therefore is in no actual danger from jittery mishaps.

But the end goal, working with real patients, necessitates the closest possible next-best to reality alternative. For virtual surgery, the solution is resistance in the joystick, a simulation of interacting with physical obstacles in the process of surgery.

Bringing All the Pieces Together

While click-through webpages replace not only hours but days of physical work in a real dissection, the tactile reality of a stand-on dissection would—in theory—closely approach the real thing. Digital Trends detailed the haptic virtual object, or HVO, tech that already exists, like advanced iPhone touch screens, can “create the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to their user.”

An@tomedia is a massive database of information, and the haptic technology to mediate it in the form of a touch-screen dissection is a reality. All the pieces for this are out there, ready to come together into one, advanced 3-D rendition.

An@tomedia at this point can be accessed by anyone with permission via their college or university, with something like JSTOR. While click-through screens are a far cry from the eventual dream of its designers, the website offers a deceptively simple navigation scheme and a very practical array of data and images, a first step toward the more complex work of creating a realistic stand-in for scarce research cadavers.

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