The Visible Human Project

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It started on my Coolidge Fellow sabbatical.


In 1990, I was selected as a Coolidge Fellow at GE CRD. This is the highest individual technical award at CRD. In 1990, two fellows were elected each year. The reward for the fellowship was a Company-supported sabbatical year away from work anywhere in the world<ref>In later years, only one Fellow was selected each year and the sabbatical was reduced from a year to six months.</ref>. I was fairly young, 44, to receive the fellowship. I first heard about my selection as a Fellow from another Coolidge Fellow. He had been a Coolidge Fellow for years and, in 1990, the selection process was mainly by other Coolidge Fellows. This fellow stopped in my office one Friday and told me I had been selected. The whole process was somewhat secretive in those days and nominees seldom knew they were being considered. Also, it often took several years to move up the ladder in the process. This was my third attempt I believe. He told me that, of course, things could change, but with high probability I would be a Fellow. It so happens that this was the Friday before my annual sojourn to Siggraph.

That year, Siggraph was held in Las Vegas and I stayed at Caesars Palace. I remember getting a phone call at 6:00am from Art Chen, my CRD Lab Manager, to tell me that I was selected as a Fellow. My level of excitement really kicked in and I could not hold back announcing it to someone. At one of the Siggraph receptions I was talking to Marc Levoy from Stanford. I had known Marc for several years and had high regard for his pioneering work in computer graphics. I confided to him that I would receive the Fellowship and associated sabbatical. Marc's first words were, Would you consider coming to Stanford?

The award was not announced until early Fall. Once announced, I kept receiving inquires from my colleagues about where I would spend my sabbatical. My first choice was Brigham and Women's Hospital Surgical Planning Lab. Kirby Vosburgh, my Lab manager, urged me to look farther away. He said he would support a six month visit to the Brigham without eating into my official sabbatical. I decided to split my year between two universities: Duke and Stanford. Duke was my first choice because Al Johnson ran the Center for In-Vivo Microscopy at Duke. I had collaborated loosely with Al for many years and I respected his work and enjoyed him personally. I chose Stanford because of Marc Levoy's sincere invitation and the opportunity to visit with one of the top computer graphics groups in the world.

Just prior to my six month visit to Duke, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) released the Visible Human Male data. I was looking for new application areas for our software and the timing of the Visible Man Male Data was perfect. This presented a great opportunity to test our tools on a very large dataset. And, I had time to devote to any project I wanted while I was on my sabbatical. Al's group had some new Silicon Graphics systems as well as large amounts of on-line storage. He also has a fairly sophisticated single frame recording system that could produce high quality video. Back at CRD we had decent recording capability, but our graphics systems did not have enough memory to work on such a large dataset.

I spent part of my stay at Duke generating models and animations of the Visible Human Male. The dataset was certainly challenging and I spent some time organizing the data and producing documentation on how to process the CT data<ref>Almost all of my early experience was with the Visible Human Male CT data. The photographic cross-sections were too large to process.</ref>. The CT data was gathered in sections, each with a different field of view. Fortunately, my Marching Cubes implementation could handle non-isotropic voxels<ref>In 2005 while working on the DARPA Virtual Soldier Project, a group at University of Utah mistakenly generated volume renderings of the VHM CT data that applied uniform spacing to the non-isotropic data. Greg Jones (U Utah) and I named that rendering The Visible Inca.</ref>. I applied several rudimentary segmentation techniques and created some impressive models of the skin, bone, leg muscles and bowels. Lymb, our computer animation system, had a nice key framing capabilities and I was able to generate some interesting animations including a fly through that moved up and down the full skeleton of the VHM. Generating movies was a bit challenging in those days although much easier than my early days at CRD when I had to shoot film with color wheels. The Duke video setup had a 3/4" video recorder and a controller driven by a Mac. Video was shot one frame at a time. One image would be downloaded into a full color frame buffer, the Mac repositioned the VCR a few seconds before the new frame location, brought the tape up to speed , just at the correct time, recorded the single frame. This continued, a frame at a time, until the entire 30 frame per second video was complete. Typically I ran the video recording overnight.

Also during my stay at Duke, I started a professional and personal relationship with Terry Yoo, a young PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill. I had met Terry at earlier IEEE Visualization conferences<ref>Terry tells an interesting story about how we met at IEEE Vis. At Vis '91 in San Diego, I gave a talk Golf Green Visualization, co-authored with Boris Yamrom. Terry was in the audience and thought, "Cool. I'd like to work with that guy someday".</ref>. Terry reserved an office for me at UNC to use whenever I wanted. I did visit several times, giving talks and listening to students, but I never really took advantage of the office. I mention Terry because later he would work at the National Library of Medicine and become the program manager for the Insight Toolkit contract.

While at Duke, I wrote the IEEE Vis paper, Marching Through the Visible Man. This paper described how I processed the data, what algorithms I used and how long each processing step took. I wanted others to be able to run their algorithms on the publically available data and compare their results to mine.

While I was at Duke, I attended the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality (MMVR) Conference in San Diego. This was, I believe, the second or third MMVR. MMVR was (and still is) a venue that brings together medical doctors, government, academic and industry folks that have an interest in applying advanced technologies to applications in medicine. I seldom attended conferences where I was not giving a paper, panel or course. Since I was on sabbatical, I decided to try a few new conferences. At MMVR, I met Michael Ackerman from the National Library of Medicine. Mike was the NLM program officer for the Visible Human Male project. I remember showing Mike some photos I brought of the VHM renderings. I showed the pictures to Mike during lunch and I remember that he was surprised at the quality of the models I had created from the CT data. He especially admired the thigh muscle surfaces. A month or so later I was contacted by the NLM and they stopped by Duke to shoot some video for an NLM video on the Visible Human Project. They showed several of my animations, some live footage and a short interview.

The six months at Duke flew by fast. In June, I returned home. I continued to do some work on the VHM data. By that time, we had upgraded our SGI to have the same memory that the Duke system had.

In October, I started my six months at Stanford. Marc Levoy came through with his invitation and I was given an office in the Computer Science Department. I continued to work on the VHM datasets but also started working on the Visible Human Female data that had just been released. I also started to become more Internet savvy. I made web pages of the VHM male data and provided much of the information that was contained in my Vis paper. I also created a web page called, Marching Through the Visible Woman. The Internet was really exploding in 1995. I was a bit embarrassed that my web pages at Stanford were getting significantly more visits than any other Stanford computer graphics pages.

The impact on my career of the Visible Human Project has been significant. Many of the friends I have made from 1995-present have been through my association with the Visible Human Project.