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Army making open-source physiology engine

Mar. 12, 2013 - 12:05PM   |  
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An open-source physiology engine that anyone can use to develop medical simulations is being developed by the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center.

It’s not altruism that’s spurring the $7 million PhACTS (Physiologically Accurate Community-based platform for Training Systems) project. Rather, TATRC hopes that the new engine will enable the public to develop medical simulations that will benefit military as well as civilian medicine.

“We thought if we had an engine that we could give away freely to everybody, it would make it a lot easier for everyone to experiment with the simulations that use them, and make it less expensive for people to develop their own novel things,” said Thomas Talbot, chief scientist at TATRC’s Armed Forces Simulation Institute for Medicine. Current physiology simulations are either oriented toward university research, or are only available as expensive commercial products.

But TATRC is paying contractor Applied Research Associates, which won the project in February, for open-source licensing of a product that ARA will own, but that the public can download from a Web site.

“People could use this for their own for-profit products,” said Talbot, a former Army pediatrician turned medical simulations researcher.

PhACTS will be based on an existing ARA physiology engine called HumanSim.

“It will be based on a common data model that will create standard inputs and outputs, making it easy to extend this format to additional models. The platform will be modular and extensible,” said ARA researcher Rachel Clipp. PhACTS will not generate fancy visuals of the human body, other than simple graphics like an electrocardiogram. What it will do is provide the underlying models so a medical simulation can realistically depict how the body responds to various stimuli such as drugs.

Though PhACTS will be dual-use, it will also contain specific military features, such as modeling blast injuries. Perhaps just as important, the physiology engine will include plug-ins for various game engines, including Unreal and Unity.

Talbot estimates that the physiology engine will be partly available within a year or so, with full development requiring about four years. But the Web site should be up within six months, and will include a forum where users can make suggestions.

By going the open-source route, TATRC hopes to expand the breadth of simulations. For now, physiology engines tend to be used in specialized simulations such as for anesthesia training. But Talbot sees a physiology engine powering a variety of simulations.

“We can have everything in there from high-altitude medicine to trauma.”

This won’t be an official simulation in the same way that Virtual Battlespace 2 is the Army’s official tactical training game. But Talbot believes the physiology engine will be recommended as a cost-saver.

“If someone is going to spend a lot of money to make a capability for us, we might say, ‘Hey, do you think you can use this engine as a tool instead of building an engine? And then maybe redirect the money toward more content?’”

The physiology engine is part of the Developer Tools for Medical Education (DTME), an initiative by TATRC and the Joint Program Committee-1 (JPC-1), a tri-service research directorate of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

Other projects include a common medical simulation platform, an open-source surgical simulation, simulated patients, and a modular mannequin.

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