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A Virtual View beneath the Skin

A device that projects anatomical images onto the body could help patients “see” their injuries—and encourage them to do their exercises.

Microsoft researchers have developed a handheld device that gives physical-therapy patients a virtual view beneath the skin to see what an injury looks like inside. The hope is that this will make them a little more eager to keep doing their therapies. 

What lies beneath: A device developed at Microsoft projects images bone structure, muscle, tendons and nerves onto a patient’s skin.

“People are notoriously bad at sticking to their physical therapy regimens,” says Amy Karlson, of Microsoft Research’s Computational User Experiences Group in Redmond, Washington. Between 30 and 50 percent of patients with chronic conditions fail to comply with their recommended therapies, she says. As a result, conditions can take longer to heal or can get even worse.

Karlson says the more information that patients have about their injuries, the more likely they are to comply with physical therapy regimens. The new tool, called AnatOnMe, aims to give patients that extra bit of information. The device projects an image of the underlying bone structure, muscle tissue, tendons, or nerves onto the skin, giving patients a better understanding of the injury, and of what they need to do to help the healing process, says Karlson.

The prototype device comes in two parts. The first contains a handheld, or pico, projector, an ordinary digital camera, and an infrared camera. The second contains a laser pointer and the control buttons. “The technology is somewhat low-tech,” says Karlson, who presented the device this week in Vancouver at CHI 2011, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Instead of using a complicated autocorrection system to map the image of the internal injury precisely onto the patient’s exterior, the therapist simply points the projector and lines it up by eye. And with the prototype, the images displayed are not actually taken from scans of the patients but come from stock graphical images used to show one of six different types of injury.

Even so, it appears to be very effective, says Karlson. Controlled experiments of the device carried out by two physical therapists suggest that the device encourages patients to stick to their therapies.

A doctor or therapist could also use AnatOnMe to project images onto a nearby wall. The user interface also works this way, says Karlson, with the menu options projected onto a surface. Options are selected using the laser pointer, which is detected by the infrared camera.

E. Anne Reicherter, a member of the American Physical Therapy Association at the University of Maryland-Baltimore School of Medicine, says physical therapy compliance is a major problem, partly because it usually involves exercise, and partly because it involves changing a habit or forgoing a behavior that may have caused the injury in the first place.

“But most patients are very interested in understanding what’s going on in their body, so something like this that can visually assist them in truly understanding would be a real benefit,” says Reicherter. Although, she adds, a certain portion of the population, particularly older patients, may find such visceral detail a bit of a turn off.