This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In 2014 radiology professor Mark Griswold was looking for a new way to teach anatomy. Running a cadaver lab can be expensive, and corpses offer surprisingly limited views into the body. In the midst of his search, he was invited to Microsoft’s top secret testing facility. He expected to be shown a virtual reality headset, a potentially useful tool for teaching. Instead technicians outfitted him with something even more groundbreaking: a mixed reality headset, called HoloLens, the first self-contained computer that allows users to see holograms amid their surroundings.
When Griswold put on the headset, he was transported to a mountain on the surface of Mars. Standing beside him was a NASA scientist. They chatted and even made eye contact, but the scientist was a hologram—a real person beamed in from another room—and so was Mars, built out of rover images. The experience was so overwhelming that he had to sit down: “I immediately knew my world had changed that day.” The headset, he realized, would be invaluable in the classroom.
Griswold and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic set out to design a program for HoloLens that would revolutionize anatomy lessons. Last year they released HoloAnatomy, a demonstration application that transforms images into 3-D models of the human body’s bones and organs and enables students to explore their shape and movement from every angle.
Virtual reality immerses users into an alternate world, removed from their surroundings. HoloLens is different: “Physical and holographic objects coexist and interact in real time,” says Microsoft’s Lorraine Bardeen. In classrooms this means students can communicate with teachers, peers, and a holographic display during a lesson.
HoloLens has already been deployed to an array of fields, from aviation to fashion design. Elevator technicians use it to identify problems, and architects are creating holographic versions of blueprints to help conceptualize buildings. A medical technology company recently began using it to reinvent the operating room, so one day medical students who learned anatomy by hologram could perform surgery in a HoloLens-designed room.
In 2019 Case Western plans to open an anatomy lab designed with the help of HoloLens and using a curriculum built around the device. “I don’t see a class on campus that won’t be affected by the technology,” says Griswold.