VR lets expecting parents tour the womb for an early meeting with their unborn fetus

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A 3D virtual model MRI view of a fetus at 26 weeks(Credit: Radiological Society of North America)

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Take a couple of tried-and-tested imaging technologies and combine them with one at the cutting edge of computer science and what do you get? A virtual tour of an unborn baby's anatomy, apparently. Scientists have used a mix of MRI, ultrasound and VR to produce 3D models of fetuses, a technology that could be used to avoid complications when it comes time to welcome them into the real world.

Researchers from Brazil's Clínica de Diagnóstico por Imagem began by taking MRI scans of the fetus and its environment. These were first used to build 3D models of individual components, such as the womb, umbilical cord, placenta and the fetus itself. The data was then fed into VR software, which is programmed to combine the separate parts into a complete, immersive model.

The scientists used an Oculus Rift headset to explore the environment. It even includes the sounds of a beating heart which is sourced from the ultrasound, and the model of baby itself is said to very closely resemble its postnatal appearance (just in case a 3D printed fetus doesn't quite cut the mustard).

While the technology can provide excited parents with glimpse of their unborn child, it could have very practical applications beyond that. Because the images are said to be sharper and clearer than those produced by ultrasound and MRI, it could be used to better assess treatment options for blocked airways and malformations ahead of the delivery.

"The physicians can have access to an immersive experience on the clinical case that they are working on, having the whole internal structure of the fetus in 3-D in order to better visualize and share the morphological information," says study co-author Heron Werner. "We believe that these images will help facilitate a multidisciplinary discussion about some pathologies in addition to bringing a new experience for parents when following the development of their unborn child."

The researchers are presenting their work at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America next week.

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