Innovation

Digital cadavers: How virtual reality and augmented reality can change anatomy class

Western University's new Virtual Reality Learning Center is using VR and AR to train med students.

Robert Hasel has a big idea about how to change the teaching of human anatomy for medical, dental, and health science students. Instead of getting elbow-deep in a real human corpse, he wants them to get immersed via virtual and augmented reality.

He's associate dean for simulation, immersion, and digital learning at Western University in Pomona, California, and after 12 years of figuring out how to turn an idea into a reality, this fall, the health science students at Western walked into the J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center for the first time to learn about anatomy through digital immersion and interactivity.

Though Hasel started out in private practice as a dentist, he transitioned into education and started thinking about ways to best prepare students for life after school.

In 2006, he was recruited to help build a new dental school in Glendale, Arizona. Having the chance to be so involved in designing curriculum gave him the perspective of anticipating what students would need to know, years later when they graduated.

"I saw the need to create new learning environments for students, I wanted to really approach the human nature of learning and how we interact with our environment and learn from it," Hasel said.

He talked about watching a small child explore his or her environment—they poke and push and learn by interacting.

Another shaping factor was Hasel's son, who is a gamer who spun a company out of the anatomy division of Stanford University's school of medicine 12 years ago. He liked the idea of finding a way to put education into something like a game.

After three years at Western University, Hasel recognized a point where technology was finally mature enough to provide the kind of educational experience he'd imagined.

"We've built the curriculum into an adaptive learning environment, an adaptive learning platform which allows us to deliver all of our curriculum content in an online self learning environment that's guided learning, individualized learning, and acts as a student tutor," he said.

The learning center opened this fall. It offers a variety of tech including virtual reality and augmented reality.

They use Oculus Rifts to power an experience that takes students inside the human body on a microscopic level, complete with guided narration.

There's zSpace—four 3D projection monitors coupled with 3D glasses and styluses so that students can do things, depending on the software, like dissect the human body (to the point of being able to select tools like scalpels, and get a bit of haptic feedback when they make a cut), extract organs, even walk around them, said zSpace's Gregg Yedwab.

They also use Anatomage, which is a virtual dissection table, as well as other programs that run off iPads etc.

So, the students who walk through the doors of the learning center get handed session agendas that tell them which stations to go to and what to do, and they're off.

One reason technologies like VR and AR could prove useful and appealing to schools is that it's cheaper and more accessible than having a cadaver lab. Bodies are difficult to obtain and house properly—cadaver facilities must have separate ventilation systems, so you probably wouldn't turn a first year student on a body right out of the gate.

With something like a virtual dissection table, those issues go away. That's not to say that it could replace the cadaver lab, but for schools that don't have one, it could be an option, and for those that do, it could augment the educational experience, Yedwab said.

A digital cadaver also presents the opportunity to embed curriculum like quizzes or guides into the experience.

"So the student can come in and it's a complete self-contained learning environment," Hasel said.

He also said that, so far, the class average for students using the learning center in their lab classes stands about 10 points above last year on average.

"You go from traditional classroom where they're sitting in a lecture hall with anywhere from 50 to 300 or 400 students, sitting passively with nothing to do other than watch a big screen where someone is reading PowerPoint slides to you for 2 to 4 hours, to an environment where you're inside a video game, fully engaged for the entire time you're in there," Hasel said.

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Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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