Huge 'holograms' offer medics more memorable classes

Body hologram The project's creators say their "holograms" are more memorable than two dimensional slides

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A system which uses an illusionary effect to help medical students master their subject has been pioneered by two London-based junior doctors.

They have demonstrated a 3D graphic of a kidney measuring 4m (13 ft) to demonstrate renal function at a "test lecture" last week.

It was one of a series of hologram-like animations they are developing.

However, the university which hosted the event, said it was not ready to be rolled out yet.

"The cost would be prohibitively expensive," said a spokesman for St George's, University of London. "It's more a proof-of-concept at this stage."

Optical illusions

The effects were developed by Dr Kapil Sugand, who works at St George's Hospital and Imperial College London, and Dr Pedro Campos from St George's Hospital.

The animations are not true holograms, but are rather based on an illusion called Pepper's Ghost which uses glass or foil combined with special lighting techniques to make objects appear in mid-air.

They said they wanted to make it easier for students to absorb the large amount of detail necessary to pass their exams. Medical students can attend up to nine hours of lectures per day and typically study for six years in order to qualify.

"Research in educational sciences has shown the attention span of the average student is 20 to 30 minutes, but standard lectures are at least an hour," Dr Sugand told the BBC.

Kidney hologram An animation was used in the test lecture to illustrate how fluid passes through a kidney

"The human body is a very complex machine. It's very difficult to comprehend and appreciate how a kidney or liver functions, for example, from Powerpoint slides."

The images are all animated and can be controlled by the lecturer.

Three projectors are used to generate the full colour images on stage and they are designed to be used in a large auditorium.

While a "holographic" human body has previously been trialled in an anatomy class at Imperial College, it was not intended for a mass audience, said Dr Sugand.

"This could be a way to teach surgical procedures to a large group of trainees quite easily," he added.

The pair have spent £10,000 building up a small library of 3D animation lecture aids - including a sequence which outlines the various effects of malaria on different parts of the human body.

Funding came from the universities where they work, and also Dr Campos's parents.

Teething problems

Technical problems prevented the first test - scheduled for last Wednesday - from working, but an event later in the week was more successful.

Test lecture with skull hologram The University of London says the technology is too expensive for day-to-day use at present

The response from first year medical students at St George's, University of London, was positive.

"We spend a lot of time looking through textbooks and listening to lectures to try to get our heads round the subjects and I think this would make a lot of medical areas easier to understand," said Hannah Barham.

Andrew Salmon added: "As a concept it's fantastic, but I don't think it will replace the traditional kind of lecture at the moment though as it's not as customisable."

Dr Sugand acknowledged that the animations were intended to be an extra tool, and would not be a substitute for using dead bodies.

"Nothing can substitute dissecting a cadaver - it is the optimal and most traditional way of learning anatomy," he explained.

"But multimedia has become a way of complementing, not replacing, that process."

October 16 2013: This story was the subject of a complaint that the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit considered had been resolved.

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