03 March 2006

Virtual Humans--The Reality

Now we are ready to take a closer look at virtual humans, and what is being done with them. The Virtual Human Project grew from research staff discussions at the US Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL). This review article from ORNL provides a useful history.

....The beauty of a computer model of a human is that it can be customized for a specific person at any point in time. At least, that's the long-term vision shared by Easterly and his colleagues. Customization is important because of evidence that men, women, and children respond differently to various drugs, drug dosages, and other treatments, as well as environmental insults.

"From our earlier work in modeling children's organs," Ward says, "we see the need to build human models for different ages, sizes, and sexes. By using equations and changing some parameters, we can make the heart smaller or larger. We can make a human model or phantom grow with age." Use of a customized model—a computerized clone of you that includes your genetic makeup—will make it possible to predict how you might respond to different doses of radiation, chemicals, and drugs, or what damage you might suffer if you were in an automobile accident or airplane crash.


Researchers are using virtual humans to monitor human response to drugs, other chemical stimuli, and physical stimuli. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is using virtual humans to study hazardous interations, as between an operator and a machine. Toyota uses virtual humans to predict injuries from various types of accidents, so as to design safer vehicles. The University of Pennsylvania has developed a Virtual Human Testbed for studying the ergonomics and kinematics of various work environments.

The Visible Human Project has spawned the Virtual Human, a set of CT scan images from cadavers, showing the whole body inside and out, making the images available to researchers for use in computer models.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed the Virtual Soldier Project,

The DARPA Virtual Soldier Project will investigate methods that will revolutionize medical care for the soldier. The project will produce complex mathematical models to create physiological representations of individual soldiers. These holographic medical representations (known as Holomers) can be used to improve medical diagnosis on and off the battlefield.

The Holomers coupled with predictive modeling software, will facilitate a new level of integration in medical procedures. The Virtual Soldier will provide multiple capabilities, including automatic diagnosis of battlefield injuries,prediction of soldier performance, evaluation of non-lethal weapons, and virtual clinical trials.


Links to affiliated projects of The Virtual Human Project can be found here.

Simulations of humans are now used for medical training of future physicians and surgeons, for entertainment, in advertising, in research as substitutes for using human or animal subjects, even as substitutes for physical dummies in automobile crash research. Police departments are using virtual humans for training police officers.

In a previous posting, I took a more light-hearted view of virtual humans. In reality, simulated humans are now mainstream technology in several fields. How real can the simulations get? Some of them are going to the cellular and molecular levels. In the other direction, simulating the actions of groups of humans might also be enlightening.

It is important to understand that the model is not the real thing. The map is not the territory. Computer modelling is still relatively primitive, and it is always best to confirm the predictions of a model whenever possible.

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