A group of 30 people who were making films, TV shows and video games now gather in a London studio to explain complex medical procedures through digital productions.
They work for Medtronic, creating content for the company's Touch Surgery app. The app provides digital visualizations of procedures for doctors and other medical professionals to prepare and practice for surgery.
"We use a lot of the technology that comes out of visual effects. What we're trying to do is improve training and education," said Daniel Smollan, head of the studio for digital technologies, which is within Medtronic's surgical business.
Smollan was a podiatrist, then switched careers to become a computer animator. He has worked on blockbusters including "Total Recall," "The Bourne Legacy" and "Skyfall."
His two job paths turned out to be perfect preparation for a field now known as medical visualization.
The London team works in an office structured like a visual effects animation studio, Smollan said. The team uses some of the same software used for filmmaking.
"We have experts who are focused on making skin look like skin," he said, "and experts who have gained the knowledge of how to make a liver look like a liver and behave like a liver for surgical training and education."
It's important that the visualizations look real, not computer-generated.
"The audience will always notice when something is computer graphics, even just on subconscious level. We want to make sure that the experience for the learner is as real as possible," he said.
The team evolved from the London-based Digital Surgery unit, which Medtronic acquired in 2020. The team is now part of digital technologies team within the Surgical Operating Unit for Medtronic, which is based in Ireland but run out of Fridley.
The Touch Surgery app, which has been downloaded nearly 4 million times, is powered by artificial intelligence, which like robotics is a growing component of Medtronic's portfolio.
Medtronic's GI Genius uses AI to identify polyps that could otherwise be missed during colonoscopies. The company's surgical robotics system, Hugo, is being used on five continents but is not yet approved in the U.S.
"Medtronic is known for its instruments, devices and increasingly its robotics capabilities," said George Murgatroyd, vice president and general manager for digital technologies. "Part of the rationale around the acquisition of Digital Surgery was to layer in this digital and data capability to essentially connect some of the dots on the Medtronic devices and robotics and start enabling some new solutions for customers."
New York-based Kitware, which opened an office in the Uptown area of Minneapolis earlier this year, does extensive medical visualization work.
Andinet Enquobahrie, senior director of medical computing for Kitware, said medical image data can be used to create visualizations, videos and interactive graphics that can help doctors and make clinical information easier for patients to understand.
"It's become more visual, more accessible," Enquobahrie said.
Beyond using it for medical education, Enquobahrie said it can be used for diagnosis and treatment planning.