3D scanning solutions

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How the University of Dundee uses Artec 3D scanners in their Medical Art program and beyond

Challenge: To have medical art students digitally capture bones, skeletons, and educational anatomy models and transform them into lifelike 3D models.

Solution: Artec Eva, Space Spider, Artec Studio, ZBrush

Results: University medical art students need accurate 3D models as a foundation for their work as medical illustrators. The University of Dundee teaches them how to use Artec Eva and Space Spider, two cutting-edge 3D scanners, for easily creating 3D models to be used in a variety of applications.

Whenever you see an animation of how viruses are transmitted and, better yet, how to prevent them from sneaking into your respiratory tract, you can thank a medical illustrator for their work. The field of modern medicine and healthcare has grown exponentially complex over the past century.

University of Dundee Medical Art students scanning with Artec Space Spider

Medical illustrators are those behind-the-scenes interpreters who transform all of that complexity into visually understandable diagrams, images, videos, as well as other tangible or virtual mediums.

University of Dundee Medical Art illustration of the various components of the inner ear

The University of Dundee’s Medical Art program prepares future medical illustrators for this exciting work, offering graduate students a 12-month course that covers all the essentials of this ever-expanding sphere. With the latest advances in technology, science, and visual communication available today, there’s no better time to be a part of this highly sought-after profession.

University of Dundee Medical Art 3D model showing kidney disease

Medical illustrators are usually artists with anatomical training, ensuring that their work is not only attractive, but also medically accurate, since the precision of their work, especially when in the hands of doctors, can mean the difference between life and death. That’s why a proper anatomy education is a vital chapter of medical art education.

3D scans of the human foot were used to help create this foot anatomy diagram

One example of medical illustration in action is when a child is with their parents and listening to the doctor give a diagnosis and explain various treatment options. Such a nervous moment for the parents is oftentimes frightening and confusing for a child. But the work of medical illustration helps doctors change all that.

Imagine that same doctor stepping away from her desk, walking over, and sitting down at the child’s level. She gently clicks her iPad to life and together with the parents they watch a colorful animation of the child’s condition as well as the various procedural options available. The child’s shoulders relax and she breathes a deep sigh of relief.

Another example is surgical simulation. Medical universities are beginning to develop and integrate highly-realistic AR (augmented reality) & VR (virtual reality) simulations of various surgical interventions for use by their medical students. Such simulations are powered via the work of today’s medical illustrators, with rigorous standards as to anatomical accuracy and precision.

University of Dundee student interacting with a VR environment

During these simulations, physicians-to-be are honing their fine motor skills and muscle memory with virtual scalpels, drills, and other tools. So, if the 3D model of the virtual patient they’re working on isn’t anatomically accurate someday that doctor may not be able to successfully carry out the actual procedure on a real patient.

To heighten the level of realism, besides VR headsets, these simulations often feature the use of haptic devices, which physically require that users make the same movements and exert the precise levels of pressure necessary to perform the procedures. The results have been highly encouraging.

One study conducted at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine in 2019 showed that following such training, medical students who had taken part in the VR surgical simulations performed significantly better across a range of categories, with their scores being 130% higher than students trained via traditional surgical methods.

In order for medical illustrators to obtain 3D models for their work, they have several options. The traditional path has been 3D modeling. The University of Dundee Medical Art program includes classes that introduce this art to students and teach them how to achieve a solid level of proficiency whenever called upon.

Yet 3D modeling normally demands a very long, multi-step process for creating 3D content. And when it comes to organic shapes, such as the human skeletal and muscular systems, even veteran 3D modeling experts often seek more efficient ways to digitally capture these objects.

One such method is 3D scanning. The University of Dundee embraced handheld 3D scanners when they saw how fast and easy it was for students with no experience to pick one up and begin capturing objects in seconds. Not to mention the results: scientifically-accurate 3D models ready for use in anatomical illustration, VR/AR medical applications, as well as 3D printing, so museum visitors can hold and experience a variety of priceless specimens on an entirely new level.

After a demonstration of the Artec Eva and Space Spider 3D scanners by Artec 3D Gold Partner and 3D scanning specialist Patrick Thorn, the University of Dundee’s Medical Art course coordinator Dr. Caroline Erolin quickly made her decision.

In her words, “Because we need to digitally capture a whole range of organic structures, including human bones as well as zoological specimens, and to do so quickly and easily, with results that make it simple for us to turn these scans into amazing 3D models ready for VR and 3D printing, our standards were quite high.”

University of Dundee Medical Art student scanning a human skull with Artec Space Spider

Dr. Erolin continued, “But from the first demonstration we had of Artec scanners by Patrick Thorn, we knew that we had found the right scanners for us. Our students, without any previous scanning or 3D modeling experience, can be up and scanning with them in minutes. They’re a pleasure to use, especially when you see the object you’re capturing coming to life on the screen so fast, in vivid color 3D.”

The university subsequently purchased one Artec Eva and three Space Spider scanners for the program, along with dozens of copies of Artec Studio, the world-renowned 3D scan processing software.

In the words of Patrick Thorn, “From the moment I began working with Caroline and the university, it was apparent that Artec 3D scanners would be a perfect fit. It didn’t take long for adjacent departments at the university to sit up and take notice. Soon they chose Artec 3D scanners as well. It’s a great collaboration we have, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

University of Dundee Medical Art student using Artec Eva to scan a classmate

Current scanning uses of Artec Eva and Space Spider in University of Dundee’s Medical Art program:

  • Human skulls, to assist with facial reconstructions – both forensic and archaeological
  • Zoology and comparative anatomy specimens for public engagement, teaching, and research
  • Juvenile osteology, to help preserve a fragile collection and allow it to be used in teaching in a non-destructive manner
  • Adult osteology/bone specimens, for teaching and research
  • Some of these 3D models are then adapted and added to (with muscles modeled in ZBrush/Maya) by the MSc medical art students to create anatomy teaching resources
  • Teaching MSc medical and forensic art students a full spectrum of 3D scanning and processing skills
  • Scanning models made in traditional materials such as wax – typically for student coursework

Dr. Erolin explained how beneficial the scanners have been for their students, “By the time our students graduate from our program, they will have spent dozens of hours using the Artec Eva and Space Spider. They’ll know firsthand how to pick up one of these remarkable devices and in just a few minutes, digitally capture anything from a puffer fish to a human cranium. Then to turn those scans step-by-step into 3D models that are ready for further medical art work. That includes textbook illustrations, online animations, VR environments, such as virtual museum exhibits, not to mention actually 3D printing these specimens for hands-on use by researchers and museum visitors. Our students learn all this and more.”

3D model of a puffer fish, scanned with Artec Space Spider (Sketchfab)

Here is an online portfolio highlighting the medical art work of several University of Dundee students.

In regards to the safety of 3D scanning for museum collections, Erolin said, “Many of the objects we need to capture are physically quite fragile and susceptible to damage, and that means we need to extremely limit the amount of contact they endure. Artec Eva and Space Spider fit perfectly into this paradigm. Their structured light is absolutely safe and non-destructive, regardless of whether you’re scanning delicate zoological specimens or brittle, millennia-old fossils.”

University of Dundee Medical Art illustration created via the help of Artec Space Spider scans

Dr. Erolin went on, “Considering how fast the scanners capture objects, even an inexperienced student can safely scan a dozen specimens or more in a single afternoon. For a museum, that means minimal disruption and maximum benefit. Because everything is moving to online access nowadays, particularly with the challenges we’ve seen globally these past few months. Artec has been that golden key to help transform our collections over to the digital universe.”

3D model of an African Forest Elephant skull, scanned with Artec Eva (Sketchfab)

“To show you how much interest there is in online zoological collections, even though our D’Arcy Thompson Museum has digitized only a fraction of its collections, already in excess of 20,000 virtual visitors from dozens of countries around the world have come to look at our 3D models. And that number keeps rising.”

“Not only does having this kind of access open up our collections to many thousands of people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to come to Scotland and visit the exhibits in person, but it’s also resulted in the museum itself receiving more publicity and public focus both locally and from abroad. For modern museums in our busy, dizzying-paced world, getting more attention is truly golden.”

One of the most appealing aspects of the scanners for the university has been the short learning curve required, as well as the ease of students becoming skilled with the Artec Studio scan processing software, which is a vital step in transforming the scans into 3D models.

University of Dundee Medical Art students scanning a human mandible with Artec Space Spider

Dr. Erolin explained their process, “What our scanning workflow looks like is generally as follows: we scan the object with either Eva or Space Spider, capturing the object in sections, depending on size. We mostly use the default settings in Artec Studio, but occasionally adjust the sensitivity for trickier objects such as those with dark and shiny surfaces. Then we do Rough and Fine Registration, followed by aligning the scans. After this we do Global Registration, and then use the Eraser and Outlier Removal tools to clean things up a bit.”

“We usually apply a Sharp Fusion when we’re working with skulls and other objects with detailed anatomy that we need to preserve. Whereas if we’re scanning faces and smoother objects, we find it works better to use the Smooth Fusion. After applying Small Object Filter and Fast Mesh Simplification, we create texture from the scans used for Fusion, and then export as an OBJ with a texture map as either a JPG or PNG. We subsequently do some finishing touches in ZBrush.”

“So long as you don’t retopologize or cut the mesh, you can smooth out the model in ZBrush without losing the UV map. You can also project the texture map to Polypaint (make sure you divide the geometry of the model at least once to have a large polycount), tidy it up, and then create a new texture map from Polypaint.”

University of Dundee Medical Art student using Artec Eva to scan a classmate

Dr. Erolin shared her thoughts about the profession and 3D scanning: “The future of medical art and artists is very bright. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this growing field, especially with the availability of technology like our Artec scanners. They make it possible for us to transform complex, real world objects with organic shapes into 3D models quicker and easier than most people realize.”

“Personally speaking, it’s breathtaking to see these specimens come to life in 3D. And for medical artists everywhere, as well as our current and future students, 3D models like these are a critical component in creating medically and forensically accurate artwork that’s both lucid and fully comprehensive.”

One unanticipated benefit of having an abundance of 3D models at hand recently came to light. This year’s sudden cancellation of classes due to Covid-19 restrictions meant transitioning standard classes over to online access for distance learning. According to Dr. Erolin, after reviewing web-based platforms for sharing 3D models with their medical art students, the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification chose Sketchfab to distribute their 3D anatomy models. This was due to the platform’s ease of use and support for educational institutions.

Made with Space Spider: a Sketchfab-hosted 3D model of a wax anatomical head model

Models can be uploaded directly from 3D modeling software such as ZBrush via the built-in uploader or by using the upload button on Sketchfab’s homepage. Once uploaded, multiple parameters can be altered using the “3D settings” tab. These include: positioning the model and setting the field of view; adding a custom background featuring the University logo; adjusting the lighting; setting the material properties, such as glossiness and transparency; adding annotations; and there are even settings for viewing models in VR.

Sketchfab-hosted 3D model of a human pelvis (muscles attachments highlighted in ZBrush), made with Space Spider

3D Models can be uploaded along with their accompanying texture maps, but Sketchfab also reads vertex color, which can be very useful when texture maps aren’t available. With a Pro account, it’s possible to host private models, which can be very useful for more sensitive scans that you want to restrict to a specific audience. In addition, Sketchfab makes it possible for work to be easily shared under a Creative Commons license. Once hosted on Sketchfab, 3D models can easily be embedded on websites and social media and even downloaded for 3D printing.

The use of 3D scanning at the University of Dundee has been so successful that they’ve often recommended Artec 3D scanners to other universities and educational organizations around the UK and abroad. In that direction, as an organizing member of the Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI), Dr. Erolin has invited Patrick Thorn & Co to take part in their regular events. The most recent one was a two-day conference in Belfast, Ireland, in October 2019.

During both days of the event, there was great excitement at Patrick Thorn’s workshops, where participants also had the chance to try out three Artec 3D professional handheld scanners: the Artec Leo, Space Spider, and Eva. The workshops were titled, “Capturing 3D to complement facial reconstruction,” and “3D scanning – aiding Medical Photography to do more.”

“Caroline and the University have been a great reference for Artec 3D and for us,” said Thorn, “This has helped us with so many installations throughout Scotland’s universities and businesses.”

For stories about how Artec 3D scanners are used in other departments at the University of Dundee:



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