Thursday, October 13, 2016
Jake Markowitz

The Nursing Program at the University of Iowa may soon be entering the world of virtual reality.

Senior Associate to the Executive Vice President of Provost, Karim Abdel-Malek, founded and directs the Virtual Soldier Research program at UI, which he pitched to numerous members of the Nursing Program on Wednesday.

The main initiative of the program has been to develop Santos, a high fidelity, biochemically accurate musculoskeletal virtual human, able to predict muscle activation and muscle forces in real time.

Created 12 years ago, the Virtual Soldier family has now expanded to include a female version, Sophia, who, along with Santos, can model a variety of body shapes and sizes.

“The most important part of the program is that we have been able to enable him to predict behavior and feel the physics around him,” Abdel-Malek said.

Already used in every branch of the military, the program has been able to help researchers answer crucial questions related to fatigue soldiers feel after exerting a certain amount of energy.

“We can say to Santos, ‘Try to carry this box and tell me how you feel,’ ” Abdel-Malek said. “Can you do it?’ That is one of the most important questions we have been able to answer for the military.”

In the program, Santos and Sophia are each nine years old. However, the team is working on developing virtual humans that will be able to model different ages and races.

“Problem: we don’t have a [baby] Santos,” Abdel-Malek said. “Another problem: we don’t have an Asian Santos. That’s part of why I’m here.”

Another feature of the Virtual Reality laboratory at the UI is a six-wall immersive CAVE system. In the room, visitors wear 3D glasses and are able to look at the virtual world surrounding them as if the projections were actually there. The CAVE system is not exclusive to the UI, though, as developers of the system have also helped researchers at Keele University, in the United Kingdom, build their own virtual room.

“We can use that to create simulations that mimic real life: walking around a ward, flying through a molecule, or performing a virtual dissection,” Luke Bracegirdle, head of digital and business analytics for the School of Pharmacy at Keele University, said in a promotional video.

After hearing about the programs, numerous faculty members expressed their excitement for the potential health benefits virtual reality could have on patients

“Helping them with preventive kinds of strategy or even treatment, in terms of proper exercise or proper movement would be exciting areas,” said UI Professor of Nursing Barbara Rakel.

Predicting the continued rise of the technology, Abdel-Malek urged the nursing program to start incorporating virtual reality programs into their research as quickly as possible.

“It’s becoming a commodity,” Abdel-Malek said. “Every day you’ll be able to go to Wal-Mart and buy a VR set. In schools, every kid will have some sort of VR kit by the end of 2017. It’s becoming a revolution that you have to jump on board.”