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New virtual reality device lets parents watch unborn babies in 3D

Expectant parents may soon be able to watch their unborn baby grow and even listen to its heartbeat using a 3D virtual reality device, say scientists who have developed a new technology that creates a realistic model of the foetus using MRI and ultrasound data.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides high-resolution foetal and placental imaging with excellent contrast.

It is generally used in foetal evaluation when an ultrasound cannot provide sufficiently high-quality images.

Researchers created virtual reality 3D models based on foetal MRI results. Sequentially-mounted MRI slices are used to begin construction of the model.

A segmentation process follows in which the physician selects the body parts to be reconstructed in 3D.

Once an accurate 3D model is created – including the womb, umbilical cord, placenta, and foetus – the virtual reality device can be programmed to incorporate the model.

“The 3D foetal models combined with virtual reality immersive technologies may improve our understanding of foetal anatomical characteristics and can be used for educational purposes and as a method for parents to visualise their unborn baby,” said Heron Werner from the Clinica de Diagnostico por Imagem in Brazil.

The virtual reality foetal 3D models are remarkably similar to the postnatal appearance of the newborn baby.

They recreate the entire internal structure of the foetus, including a detailed view of the respiratory tract, which can aid doctors in assessing abnormalities.

For the virtual reality device, researchers used the latest-generation Oculus Rift 2 headset. Oculus Rift 2 places the user in an immersive environment, complete with heartbeat sounds derived from the ultrasound of the foetus.

Users can study the 3D foetal anatomy simply by moving their head.

The technology has numerous potential applications, including assessment of foetal airway patency.

Airway patency, or the state of airways being open and unblocked, is an important issue for a developing foetus.

For example, if ultrasound showed an abnormal mass near the foetal airway, physicians could use the 3D images and the headset to assess the entire length of the airway and make better-informed decisions about 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 foetus in 3D in order to better visualise and share the morphological information,” Werner said.

“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,” he said.

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