Primal pictures anatomy teaching resources: 3D anatomy software and 3D real-time viewer


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Modern computer graphic technology has led to an increasing demand for e-learning resources, especially in anatomy, a visual subject where true three-dimensional learning in the form of dissection has been replaced in many universities. There are several anatomical computer programmes or applications on the market, but according to its website, the company Primal Pictures was set up with the express purpose of creating an accurate and detailed three-dimensional anatomical model of the human body, based on medical data from scans that were subsequently interpreted by anatomists or clinicians and then converted into computer images and animations. The resulting product is a comprehensive piece of software that can encompass an enormous range of features – depending on the amount you are prepared to pay. Not only computerised images, but also MRI scans, slides of cadaveric dissections, photographs of pathological specimens or patients, photographs taken during surgery, movies, and a host of diagrammatic and written information is also available. Much of the supporting material can be saved or printed and many of the other features can be exported for use in presentations. Primal Pictures seem to be continually broadening their products, and, in addition to the regional or systemic anatomical material available, offer many different packages for specialist markets such as dentistry, sports therapy, otolaryngology or even acupuncture.

The software is aimed at both professionals (in many clinical fields and anatomy education) and students, with the company claiming that over 500,000 students use it in the UK alone.

The products to which access was given for this review included several different components of the material available on interactive systemic anatomy, interactive regional anatomy, surgical and functional anatomy and the 3D real-time body. In all of these, the software is easy to use and quite intuitive. Helpful animated videos demonstrate the basics, and experimentation with the buttons on the screen quickly allows mastery of the rest.

The systemic anatomy package gives a brief overview of most of the body systems and includes short quizzes for self-testing, although occasionally the item being highlighted for identification is hard to find, even when made to flash. However, the software comes into its own in the regional interactive sections. Here, the computerised anatomical images can be ‘dissected’ layer by layer, with skin, fascia, vessels, nerves, lymphatics, muscles, bones and ligaments appearing or disappearing as the layers are added or removed. The image can also be rotated through 360° to be viewed from different angles. Hovering over any anatomical structure outlines it with a label revealing its identity, while clicking on it brings up detailed notes. This is easy and helpful, but sometimes the exhausting amount of detail provided both in the model and in the notes is probably unnecessary for most users, and may be off-putting for many students of anatomy. It may be realistic to see large numbers of, for example, veins and arteries around a joint, but most users would probably prefer to see just the main vessels without becoming bogged down in so much detail. MRIs of the region are also available, appearing in parallel with the anatomical models, and beautifully produced videos demonstrate the functional aspects of structures such as muscles, ligaments and joints. Many of these should be extremely useful for people who work in functional anatomy fields such as biomechanics, physiotherapy and kinaesiology, while others seem a little pointless, for example protrusion of the lips. The videos can be slowed down by using the slide bar to control the movement, so analysis of the movement is straightforward and undemanding. Most areas also offer large numbers of clinical and dissection slides, again with accompanying material.

The 3D real-time body software allows detailed examination of various regions. Although named 3D, the images are more accurately two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional model. Having said that, the graphics are superb, so it feels like real 3D. The anatomy covered is similar to the regional anatomy package, but the approach is somewhat different, as structures such as nerves, veins, arteries, muscles, organs or fascia can be individually added to or removed from the model, which itself can be rotated in any direction, zoomed in or out, and moved across the screen using the mouse alone. This should improve visual understanding of spatial position and relationships, as individual structures can be viewed from any direction or angle.

When the software was tried out with a wired Internet connection, the changeovers between pictures was fast, with moving images and animations only marginally slower. However, using it through a fast wifi connection was sometimes frustratingly slow, with lag times rather longer, sometimes leading to incorrect labels being left on the screen when new pictures were projected.

The enormous and complex range of products, ranging from DVDs costing one or two hundred pounds to multi-user institutional licences giving 20 concurrent users online access to all packages for close to £30,000, should ensure that no matter what your budget, there is a product that will suit you.

There is no doubt that an enormous amount of work went into preparing these excellent resources and they are great fun to use. Whether student learning is universally improved is less clear, but this interactive system would certainly be an outstanding adjunct to existing methods and highly attractive to many teachers and learners of anatomy.