A few years ago, emergency physician Joshua Broder was playing Nintendo Wii with his son. Impressed with the way the device's controllers could be so accurately tracked in space, Broder began to consider how this technology could be incorporated into an ultrasound hand probe. Now, with the help of a team from Duke University and Stanford University, Broder has created a clip-on device that can turn 2D ultrasound images into more detailed 3D versions that rival the quality MRIs or CT scans.

"With 2-D technology you see a visual 'slice' of an organ, but without any context, you may mistake it for another part, or mistake one disease process or injury for another," says Broder. "These are all problems that can be solved with the added orientation and holistic context of 3-D technology. Gaining that ability at an incredibly low cost by taking existing machines and upgrading them seemed like the best solution to us."

The idea behind the new innovation uses a US$10 position-tracking microchip like those found in smartphones to track the orientation of the ultrasound probe and allow for the imaging data to be stitched together into a 3D portrait. The current prototype incorporates a 3D-printed harness that lets the device clip onto any regular ultrasound probe.

The system can be run from a laptop that takes the positioning data (via a USB cable) and combines it with the regular ultrasound imagery (via any video output cable) to generate extraordinary 3D images within seconds.

"We've tried it on all types of ultrasound machines made by GE, Siemens, Philips, SonoSite – you name it – and it's worked every time without any previous testing," says Broder. "After a quick arc or twist of the probe, the software churns out a 3-D image in a matter of seconds."

Traditionally, the alternative to ultrasound scans are MRI and CT imaging. Both involve large, expensive machines and time-consuming processes. MRI machines also require long-periods of stillness for accurate imaging, something that is difficult when scanning babies, for example. While this new process of course doesn't capture 3D images equal to those of MRI or CT machines, it does offer a cheap, fast and convenient alternative that is portable and safe.

The team is currently testing the device in clinical trials and hopes to bring it to market within the next two years to offer cheap and fast 3D imaging to remote clinics and emergency rooms around the world.

Take a closer look at this breakthrough invention in the video below.

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