Could Avatar's Technology Improve Medicine?

Directors like James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis are using motion capture and computer animation to place actors in unusual bodies and fantastical environments. But the medical community is increasingly utilizing technology originally designed for movies and video games.

Cameron has promised us that Avatar represents a huge technological advancement, a blending of real-world performances and imagination that will transport us to the foreign world of Pandora in an immersive, visceral way. But developers of medical technologies are looking to achieve the same sort of experience with the world we have, and the entertainment industry's advances in image capture and graphics processing are paving the way.

Certainly medicine is no stranger to computer animation, something they have long used to explain concepts and train personnel. And motion capture has been used for years in gait analysis. Physiotherapists often film patients wearing reflective motion capture markers to analyze their gait, in much the way that filmmakers use motion capture markers on their actors.

But the demand for improved computer graphics technology graphics from the entertainment industry means more sophisticated applications in medicine as well. Just this fall, Nvidia, which develops graphics processing technology for, among other things, gaming systems, demonstrated how the technology used to create immersive 3D experiences for games can also create immersive experiences of the human body. Along with Siemens Healthcare, Nvidia has developed an ultrasound viewing experience that sounds like it was scripted by Cameron: parents and healthcare workers can put on a pair of stereoscopic glasses and examine a fetus as if they were looking directly inside the womb. The demonstration comes just months after Nvida released its GeForce 3D Vision system, with a pair of stereoscopic glasses to improve the immersive experience of playing video games and watching 3D movies.

For filmmakers like Cameron, the goal is to capture the detail of the human experience, down to the most minute muscle movements and to create worlds that are so detailed as to appear real. If he's successful in creating an experience with Avatar that gives audiences both a fully immersive experience of a world that's completely invented and manages to translate the twitches of the human face onto an animated alien, imagine what his technology could accomplish when simply reflecting a world that actually exists. Perhaps the legacy of Cameron, Zemeckis, and other filmmakers working in these fields will include advances in virtual surgery, diagnosis, and other innovations in the medical field.