News - Curiosity Takes Alumnus Bramlet From Cardiology Into Virtual Reality

Curiosity Takes Alumnus Bramlet From Cardiology Into Virtual Reality

by Rachel Heston-Davis Curiosity Takes Alumnus Bramlet From Cardiology Into Virtual Reality

(photos courtesy of OSF HealthCare)

When Matthew Bramlet ’96 entered medical school with an interest in pediatrics, he never imagined he’d someday help create virtual reality software. He didn’t envision founding a lab to research the next step in medical imaging, or owning a company that would service customers including the military and manufacturers.

How did Bramlet go from physician to virtual reality guru, business owner, and researcher? One word: curiosity.

“Every step of the way I followed my curiosity,” he says. “I’ve always chased the thing I didn’t understand but was interested in.”

His early career unfolded predictably: a degree in biology at GU, medical school and residency, a pediatric cardiology fellowship. He settled in Peoria, Illinois, to practice pediatric cardiology at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, and became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria (UICOMP).

It seemed Bramlet had found his logical career trajectory—until his curiosity began throwing left turns into the plan.

One Heart, Coming Up!

Shortly after Bramlet began his career at UICOMP, the university created its Jump Simulation lab, which utilizes technology and innovation to improve healthcare processes. Bramlet learned Jump Simulation had a 3D printer. Intrigued, he tried it out, printing 3D replicas of hearts based on scans of former patients.

Then, when the surgical team prepared to perform surgery on one of Dr. Bramlet’s  complex patients, he decided to print a copy of that patient’s heart for further examination. Revelations from the 3D replica moved the team to adjust the surgical plan. 

This event clearly demonstrated the value of 3D technology to cardiology. Bramlet knew it also held promise for many other fields of medicine.

Bramlet determined to begin an advanced image modeling (AIM) lab within Jump Simulation to further explore 3D imaging in healthcare. Fortunately, funding to the tune of $15 million made it possible.

Today’s Sci-Fi, Tomorrow’s Norm

Man's hand holding stylus pen over screen with medical imageBramlet continued printing 3D hearts until he discovered virtual reality (VR) imaging in 2016. VR imaging allows the user to view a 3D image from every angle in a VR environment. The AIM lab now provides VR imaging of human anatomy for many complex medical cases; hospitals from around the country seek its assistance.

Unfortunately, this technology remains far from accessible to the average hospital and patient. 

“There are very few labs in the entire nation that have the capacity and capability that we have,” Bramlet says.

That’s because 3D VR imaging of anatomy is incredibly complex, with little automation built into the process. Each VR image requires hours of work from multiple individuals, including complicated computer coding. This makes it too expensive for most hospitals to utilize regularly.

“If I want this [technology] to be available for anyone in the nation, I have to come up with a solution that is actually sustainable somewhere else,” Bramlet realized.

Today, staff in the AIM lab direct tireless efforts toward developing user-friendly software that will translate CT and MRI scans into VR images—no coding required. They have cracked the problem for cardiac MRI, Bramlet says, and his team pushes relentlessly toward advancing this goal. 

“Recreating the exact replica of a patient’s anatomy for 3D viewing is the future,” Bramlet says with certainty. He envisions a day when all CT and MRI scans automatically generate VR images, possibly even holograms, for doctors to examine. That may sound like something out of a sci-fi flick, but Bramlet says the technology will come sooner than we realize.

Such technology has the potential to improve many areas of medicine. In an effort to expand the impact of VR modeling, the AIM lab also collaborates with physicians who treat brain and liver tumors.

Experts In Their Element

While Bramlet explored applications of VR anatomy, his curiosity yielded another left turn.

He often invited other surgeons to join him in viewing the VR heart models he generated. As his colleagues turned the 3D images this way and that within their VR headsets and hand controls, shrinking the images, zooming in, even guiding their view screens through the middle of images, they chatted freely about their observations. Bramlet realized how engaging it was to watch an expert discuss his or her field of expertise aided by virtual 3D. 

And Bramlet wondered: what if you could record the doctor’s commentary and make it part of the virtual environment for the next user to enjoy? Such virtual reality recordings could revolutionize medical education.

The idea intrigued him, but like VR anatomy, it required money to develop. It needed to be commercially viable to attract funding and recoup development costs.

So, following his curiosity, Bramlet asked a new question: what if I founded a company to develop this product?

D.I.Y. Virtual Training

Bramlet possessed no business background, so he put out feelers to find a business-savvy partner. Another GU alumnus soon answered the call. Steve Garrou ’92 brought 24 years of business experience to the table, along with faith in Bramlet’s idea.

In 2018, they founded the company Enduvo.

Enduvo software allows instructors to create a VR environment that includes pictures, videos, audio, and recorded VR lessons. Students can explore the virtual environment, pausing or “rewinding” lectures as needed. They learn through virtual participation rather than passive observation.

One example of a medical training VR lesson, featured in a 2019 article by Bramlet, incorporates the 3D background of a hospital room. On the exam table, a looped video displays a patient coughing and exhibiting other symptoms of illness. The patient’s vitals appear on monitor screens around the room. An icon to represent the instructor—in this case, a pair of glasses—floats around the 3D environment, pointing out various elements as the instructor’s voiceover gives the lesson.

Enduvo’s clients come from a range of industries such as manufacturing, the military, heavy equipment, and more. The possibilities for VR subject matter are wide open, and the software is so manageable that even Bramlet’s nine-year-old son learned to use it.

Recently, Enduvo secured a $1.2 million Air Force grant awarded to a small business conducting research into innovation.

Big Changes, Bigger God

Bramlet’s work at the university has expanded from VR anatomy modeling to include research into how people learn, and how VR could enhance that.

Bramlet admits that his career looks nothing like what he imagined when he completed medical school. The unexpected turns, while inspiring to his curiosity, have also brought their fair share of unexpected stress, particularly when it comes to running Enduvo. Still, Bramlet says, surprises and stress are more than manageable when he leans into God.

“Anyone who can keep their north star focused on God will be much more adaptable to the changes around them,” Bramlet says. He draws comfort in knowing that God retains ultimate control.

Lifelong friends he met at Greenville University provide another arm of support. Bramlet communicates regularly with his old GU buddies, and they provide “a sense of accountability and friendship that I wouldn’t exchange for anything.”

He encourages today’s students to form foundations of trustworthy friends within the Christ-centered atmosphere of GU. The relationships will help them through the inevitable stresses and surprises of post-college life. 

 

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This story was published on January 09, 2020




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