New UAB virtual technology puts experts anywhere, virtually

Frustrated when performing a task for the first time, we might wish that we could beam an expert pair of hands into the room to guide us through the often tedious process of furniture assembly or do-it-yourself home repair. Now it might not be long before that wishful thinking becomes a reality.The Virtual Interactive Presence, a software technology developed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, uses techniques from areas of virtual and augmented reality to combine local and distant video elements. Aimed initially at professional training scenarios, the technology lays one video image of a pair of hands in one location over another pair of hands in a different location while both people see the same image.

For instance, a surgeon's hands in Birmingham could virtually guide a trainee's scalpel in Bermuda through a new procedure, or a master technician in an Alabama automobile plant could pinpoint the problem in a diesel engine for a trainee in another state.

Virtual Interactive Presence is the brainchild of UAB neurosurgeon Barton Guthrie, M.D., who was motivated to develop the software, at least in part, by the need for more trained surgeons when the downturned economy stretches budgets.

"Facing increasing economic and resource pressures, we are looking for a new way to export our medical expertise from UAB and share our experts' knowledge as a leading center of excellence with other medical professionals worldwide," says Guthrie,  a professor in the UAB School of Medicine Division of Neurosurgery.

Pursuing his goal, Guthrie enlisted the help of software engineering experts from the Enabling Technology Laboratory in UAB's School of Engineering Department of Mechanical Engineering. For three years the UAB team, with the support of a grant from the U.S Department of Energy, worked to develop the first-of-its-kind software.

In a virtual-presence session, both the expert and the person at the remote site use monitors or visual displays to work in a "shared environment." In the case of surgeons working through a procedure together, both sets of the participants' hands appear in the display, giving the expert the ability to literally point the local physician in the best direction.

"Much of what is needed for a connection - Internet access, monitors and Web cameras - will be present and available at wherever it's needed," Guthrie says. "What the virtual technology provides is a way to bring it all together to allow the remote presence of an expert when and where needed."

"We have designed a technology that is useful across industries and disciplines," says Alan Shih, Ph.D., a UAB research professor of mechanical engineering. "The Virtual Interactive Presence gives operators a chance to virtually access needed experts in real-time so that medical professionals can have assistance in performing life-saving procedures, soldiers can be safer dismantling bombs in a war zone or mechanics can more quickly repair airplane systems when time is crucial."

Now the Virtual Interactive Presence is ready for its public debut. This past summer, Birmingham-based technology company VIPAAR LLC, exclusively licensed the technology from the UAB Research Foundation to develop and commercialize it.

"The Virtual Interactive Presence technology offers new benefits to medical, technical and military teams throughout the world who often face challenges that require expert assistance. Today, these teams wait on experts to arrive from far away or work on the problems they face as best they can with the tools they have," says Drew Deaton, the CEO of VIPAAR. "This technology can deliver experts to sites of need, bringing serious problems to quicker and often safer resolution."

"The medical community presented our mechanical engineering department with an idea and challenge. We developed the technology to address that challenge and turn it into reality; that's why interdisciplinary collaboration is so important," says Bharat Soni, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UAB.

The Virtual Interactive Presence development team is Guthrie, Shih, UAB mechanical engineering programmers Corey Shum and Marcus Dillavou, and Douglas Ross, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.