EPIC Art helping Science

UNSW
A world-first centre at UNSW Art & Design is helping medical scientists to visualise disease, bone by bone and platelet by platelet. 

Sarah Kenderdine is lying in darkness, looking up. Suspended above her is a six-metre-diameter “mega brain”, its corrugations, layers and cognitive circuits exposed in 3D at razor-sharp resolution.

Immersed in the inner workings of the human brain, Professor Kenderdine, from UNSW Art & Design, is focused on the future of medicine. The video projection environment above her is called DomeLab, the highest-resolution, touring full-dome in the world. It allows researchers to ‘look up’ into ultra-high-resolution data sets, an experience Kenderdine describes as “like being up with the gods”.

“Art has a lot to offer science, and medical visualisation is hugely fertile territory,” says Kenderdine.

At the forefront of this revolution is UNSW’s Expanded Perception and Interaction Centre (EPIC), where Kenderdine is head of visualisation, and where DomeLab will be based.

The purpose-built centre, a joint initiative of UNSW’s faculties of Art & Design and Medicine, will house some of the most sophisticated medical visualisation equipment yet created, allowing researchers to ‘walk through’ parts of the human anatomy using immersive, 3D technology.

Bringing together leaders in bio-informatics, medical- and neuro-imaging, art and design, immersive visualisation, data fusion, anatomy research and computational engineering from around the world, the centre aims to advance research in cancer, vaccines, dementia, neurological function and mental illness.

“The centre will build on Art & Design’s research-led approach to investigate how art can inform science, by providing a space for our researchers and the public to get up close and personal with the mysteries of the human body,” says Dean of Art & Design Professor Ross Harley.

Kenderdine says the rapid advances in medical imaging, such as MRI, fMRI and PET scans, yield huge data sets that are difficult to interpret unless they are visualised in a compelling way.

“Our task at Art & Design is not to replace the scientific aspects of the data, but to offer an interpretive device to make it more visible, intelligible, as well as aesthetically and acoustically resonant,” she says of DomeLab, which is funded with an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant.

Leading childhood cancer researcher Professor Peter Gunning, head of UNSW’s School of Medical Sciences, says the immersive experience of the dome transforms the way scientists approach their research.

“Under the dome I can get inside a cancer cell. I can walk around inside it and see all the structures and their connectivity, and I believe this will lead to new drugs to kill cancer cells,” he says.

As well as DomeLab, EPIC will also feature a second state-of-the-art immersive visualisation platform that provides a 340-degree view of medical images. The panoramic projection, which was designed and developed at UNSW, will have a resolution of 120 million pixels in 3D, giving it three times higher fidelity than its nearest competitor. Combined with a 32-speaker, surround-sound system, the platform will deliver a multi-sensory experience.

EPIC's genesis emerged in UNSW’s National Institute for Experimental Arts around talks about how art and technology could improve medical and mental health. The discussions were stimulated by research already under way by Art & Design researchers, with the idea transforming from thoughts to bricks and mortar in less than 18 months.

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