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Virtual Reality Brings Dog’s Anatomy to Life for Veterinary Students

Patricia Wuest Editorial Director, NAVC

Virtual Reality Brings Dog’s Anatomy to Life for Veterinary Students
Veterinary students try out a new virtual reality experience that allows them to see and study a dog’s anatomy. Photo Credit: Courtesy Virginia Tech
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Advances in virtual reality technology have enabled veterinary professors to teach animal anatomy as a complement to traditional teaching methods, such as cadaver-based dissection and 2D textbook illustrations.

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is using virtual reality technology to help students make a better connection between what they are learning in their anatomy classes to their physical exams. Veterinarians collaborated with faculty and students in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and School of Visual Arts.

The up-close VR experience, created by Thomas Tucker, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts and fellow with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, shows the organs inside the skeletal system of a mid-sized dog. By moving and clicking a button, veterinary students can see layers of tissue, zoom in on certain organs, and step into parts of a virtual dog’s body.

Tucker was first approached by Michael Nappier, DVM, DABVP, and an assistant professor of community practice in the veterinary college’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. Nappier teaches clinical skills education and a physical exam lab for first-year students.

Previously, veterinary students “received all their anatomy instruction well before learning the physical exam,” says Nappier. A curriculum change designed to make learning anatomy more relevant for veterinary students was made so that anatomy was taught concurrently with the physical examination. The change made sense, but Nappier watched as students struggled to get a mental picture of the animal.

“I noticed that they were having trouble seeing in their head exactly where things were located inside the dog,” explains Nappier. “It was especially apparent when teaching thoracic auscultation and abdominal palpation. So the original idea was to have something we could use in the lab that they could use to help visualize where things are inside the dog.”

The Student’s Perspective

Sara Farthing, a first-year veterinary student in at Virginia Tech (DVM, ’22), was one of the students who needed a mental picture as she practiced clinical exams on dogs during a lab. Farthing could not picture the canine’s lungs and the way the heart is positioned inside the chest.

“We spend much of class time learning the internal anatomy of animals so well that we can picture each individual organ in our heads,” says Farthing. “However, as soon as you try to examine a live animal, you have to know not only the organ structure but its orientation and relative position in the body. That’s one of the toughest parts of anatomy in my opinion. When you go to listen to a dog’s heart, we may know what the heart looks like and its parts, but where are they in the body, how is the heart positioned, where do you put your stethoscope to hear each ventricle? It’s confusing stuff!”

The virtual reality headset allows students like Farthing to see a large picture of a dog’s lungs and skeletal structure floating in mid-air. The dog’s anatomy “comes to life” with the VR technology.

“I have never experienced VR technology before, so it blew my mind,” says Farthing, who hopes to practice veterinary medicine with her mother, who runs a practice in Roanoke, Virginia. “It was all so real! They even had the color and texture of the organs designed to perfectly mimic what the real organ surface looked like. I thought it was such an incredible experience. I could orient myself, so I was standing inside the dog’s rib cage, looking around at all the organs inside. That’s such a unique perspective and it helped me to nail down my mental map of the thoracic cavity. My favorite part was moving through the spinal column, traveling through each space in the vertebrae as if I were the spinal cord. I went all the way up to the head and could see inside the skull. It was just such a great experience.”

A Modest Proposal

The VR experience started as a much more modest proposal. Nappier saw his students struggling and approached Tucker, who he hoped could create a computerized drawing of a dog’s anatomy.

“I wanted to create a simulation of a dog’s anatomy for the computer,” recalls Nappier, “but Dr. Tucker immediately said, ‘Oh, no, we’re not doing anything that simple; we’re going full virtual reality.’”

It would be far more difficult to develop, but Tucker knew VR technology would be a better experience for the veterinary students. And unbeknownst to Nappier, Tucker had already started some research.

“Some of this research got started nine years ago with a collaboration with Bess Pierce and Jeri Jones, who used to work at Virginia Tech’s veterinarian school,” says Tucker. “We started off by using CT data and processing the bones to be used in conjunction with motion capture of dogs. We took these two data sets and animated their movements then rendered out the outcome. This was a clinical study to analyze the possible injuries on working dogs. So we started off with the old CT data sets acquired from the original research sponsored by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.”

Several graduate students in the School of Visual Art (SOVA) had a key role in extracting out bones and organ data from the original puppy CT scan. “This is a slow, tedious process where they have to do a lot of cleanup of the 3D data,” says Tucker. “The students had to UV map the 3D forms and to resurface color textures onto the form to create a realistic impression of the organs and bones. As part of the VR process we had another grad student working in Unreal game engine to create the removable layers of the puppy skeleton and organs within the body. The mission of the project is to have the vet students learn the internal workings of a dog by seeing where the organs lie, how the bones move, etc., without having to harm an actual specimen.” Unreal Engine is primarily used by video game developers.  It is a suite of integrated tools used to design and build games, simulations, and visualizations.

In a traditional educational setting, veterinary students may study a dog’s body parts by examining drawings and cadavers. But in most of these cases, dogs are not standing on four legs as they would be during a typical veterinary examination. The new VR experience shows an image of a dog standing.

The VR technology allows veterinary students to see a mid-sized dog

The VR technology allows veterinary students to see a mid-sized dog’s organs, bone structure and layers of tissue. Photo Credit: Courtesy Virginia Tech

Tucker and and his students worked with Bonnie Smith, an associate professor of anatomy in the college’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, to name the bones in a dog’s body and to position them correctly.

In addition, Tucker’s students visited Nappier’s class to see how their product worked in real time and take feedback from the people using it.

The project received a $3,000 University Libraries Open Education Faculty Initiative Grant, which requires that the software be publicly released under an open license for use by other universities and veterinarians as part of Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: How Veterinary Schools Are Using the Technology

Virtual reality, which is what the Virginia Tech students are using, is a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world by using VR devices such as HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard. Users can be transported into a number of real-world (and imagined) environments such as the middle of a coral reef where sharks zip in front of your head. Augmented reality (AR) is an interplay between real objects and animated objects — like Snapchat lenses and Pokemon GO. A mixed reality (MR) experience combines elements of both AR and VR, where real-world and digital objects interact.

Virginia Tech’s VR experience is just one of several developments involving VR, AR and MR at veterinary schools in the U.S. In 2003, Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences created the Virtual Canine Anatomy program offering high-quality cadaver images to supplement the school’s first-year anatomy courses.

In 2016, Texas A&M’s Center for Educational Technologies (CET) collaborated with veterinary surgeons in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and created a 360-degree video of a spay procedure. In 2017, they created a virtual exam room where veterinarians can learn canine anatomy. Students with the “Viz lab” took high-definition scans of dog bones and put them in a virtual exam room. Veterinary students use a special remote to pick up the bones. They can assemble the bones and exam an arm or leg from nearly any angle.

In the spring of 2018, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine created an augmented reality interface for an exacting spinal cord surgery. The program is an addition to the school’s portfolio of digital and advanced technology for teaching and clinical care. Penn Vet’s augmented reality program enables students to manipulate an animated spinal cord and practice this very precise procedure until mastering it.

Next Steps

At Virginia Tech, there are plans to expand the VR experience. “We know this will have a big impact in the near future with other vet schools around the world,” says Tucker. “We hope to expand this project with other animals, like primates, in the near future.”

Nappier and his team recently received the grant money to create a VR cow and other schools have contacted them about getting the VR experience in their classes. Nappier hopes they can soon put the VR technology on a streaming video game platform, making the technology free and open to everyone. So, it seems, VR might be the wave of the future in veterinary medicine.

Eventually, Nappier hopes to have a few more VR sets for his labs. He also is working with Kiri Goldbeck DeBose, head of Virginia Tech’s veterinary medicine library, to add the VR equipment to the library for students to use anytime. “Learning happens in lots of different places, so I could see this used in a practice setting to help illustrate things to clients better or, potentially with future projects, in an agricultural extension setting being used to help farmers learn about their animals better,” says Nappier.

Tucker is developing an augmented reality (AR) dog that would be available as a smartphone app. Nappier presented the AR dog at a veterinary conference during the summer of 2018, and there was a lot of buzz around the possibilities.

For Farthing, the VR technology has been a game-changer. “I think students will have a significantly deeper understanding of the anatomy using this tool,” she says. “It provides a unique perspective and allows us to form a cognitive map where we can close our eyes and see ourselves inside the animal, looking at the organs as if we can reach out and touch them. This is an essential tool for physical examination of any animal. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity to experience this technology as a veterinary student.”

Learn More

• Read Canine Gait Analysis

• Read A Clinical Approach to Head Tilt in Dogs

• Read Veterinary Schools Receive Grants to Treat Cancer in Dogs

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