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Mapping anatomy with laser scanners benefits researchers and video game developers

April 23, 2014 by Oliver Diaz

Mapping the surface and dimensions of an object or landscape is one of the most popular uses for 3D laser scanning. However, the technology can be used for so much more – it can help researchers and video game developers understand the anatomical structure of organisms.

John Hutchinson, professor of evolutionary biomechanics at Royal Veterinary College in London, recently wrote an article in The Conversation about how laser scanners have helped rejuvenate interest in the science of anatomy. 3D mapping can even be used to help video game designers create realistic characters, according to a paper by professionals at Hanshin University.

Use in anatomical studies
According to Hutchinson, researchers typically have to use a dissecting knife and life microscope to examine the body parts of animals and understand how various parts of organisms' bodies work. Hutchinson wrote he was able to get a hold of a small laser scanner in 2001 to develop digital models of fossils for his Ph.D. research. For Hutchinson, this was a rare opportunity to further his professional research; however, now researchers around the world can gain access to this type of technology relatively easily and cheaply.

Researchers turn to digital technology because it is often faster than traditional techniques and allows them to map an organism for the creation of accurate models for their research.

"In the 1990s, you dissected a specimen and it was reduced to little scraps," Hutchinson wrote. "At best you might have some decent two-dimensional photographs of the dissection and some beetle-cleaned bones as a museum specimen. Now, as routine practice we use imaging techniques to scan specimens, providing data on their internal and external, three-dimensional anatomy in lush detail, before scalpel ever touches skin."

While Hutchinson noted that many researchers use CT technology, an article in the Journal of Anatomy noted 3D laser scanners are popular as well. 3D mapping can allow researchers to understand the embryological relationship between the face and the brain, the article noted. Even though there can be technical challenges with using 3D laser scanners, the article said this technology can give researchers hard biological evidence that can be lacking about certain disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Use in video game character production
However, researchers aren't the only ones who can benefit from mapping anatomical structures. A paper by professionals at the Division of Information and Telecom at Hanshin University in South Korea highlighted how this technology can influence 3D body animation. According to the paper, researchers used a data set collected by a laser scanner as the frame of a skeleton model of a 3D character. This model could be rotated and moved to create a walking motion, and the model was able to be animated in an augmented reality. 

According to the paper's authors, laser scanning technology can be successfully used to create models of realistic characters instead of graphic avatars. This can make them more life-like and save animators time since they don't have to develop characters from scratch. In addition, because the characters are developed using real body data, the authors even suggested the technology can be used to replace real people in movies and other types of entertainment when they would otherwise be put in dangerous situations.

The data collected by 3D laser scanners can be used to improve the knowledge of anatomical researchers and help video game or visual effects professionals create realistic models of existing people. Such technology has a wide-range of applications for numerous industries, and advancements in laser scanners can only make it easier for researchers and professionals to use the technology to their advantage.

Oliver Diaz