Cedar Rapids Gazette: Iowa City Company Builds on Its 3-D Advances

Sunday, June 19, 2011

By Dave DeWitte
The Gazette

A fierce-looking rhinoceros beetle, a wind turbine and a rocket car all have one thing in common at Iowa City's Cyber-Anatomy LLC.

All have been modeled by Cyber-Anatomy into threedimensional interactive software that shows how complex biological and mechanical systems work.

The company's products have been recognized by the Des Moines Business Record's IowaBiz.com as a hot, disruptive technology. A National Science Foundationfunded study released this month shows 3-D visual simulation helps students learn more quickly and understand spatial relationships faster.

'Any schoolteacher will spend 10 minutes with one of our products and come up with 100 new ideas to add to it, and that's what makes it exciting for me,' said Rich Lineback, Cyber-Anatomy's president.

Cyber-Anatomy's approach to innovation is to selectively use 3-D and virtual reality technologies to improve the educational experience in subject areas that require understanding of spatial relationships. The company's products frequently complement the offerings of popular science or physics textbooks.

'We would ask, 'Now, what are the activities that are very common in teaching that textbook?'' Lineback said. Cyber-Anatomy's virtual work teams then would set out to model the activities, such as animal dissections, the processes of a volcanic eruption or the inner workings of a wind turbine.

The products reduce the need for schools to purchase and handle such things as fetal piglets and frogs used for dissection, as well as the refrigerators and chemicals used to store them.

'It's innovation, but it makes sense,' Lineback said.

The technologies used by Cyber-Anatomy are an outgrowth of founder Karim Abdel-Malek's work with the University of Iowa's Virtual Soldier program, which created a software-based 3-D human figure named Santos. The model became the foundation of Santos Human LLC, a UI spinoff company, to help develop defense products with better ergonomic properties for soldiers.

Lineback said one of the more impressive things about working with Abdel-Malek is his broad knowledge of virtual reality and 3-D modeling.

'He has this broad array of technologies, and it's the interactions between the technologies that he finds exciting,' Lineback said.

The company's flagship product was developed after Abdel-Malek received a telephone call from a medical professor in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

The professor had seen one of the interactive 3-D images of the lower spine that Viz-Tech LLC, an earlier Abdel-Malek company, had developed for a website to explain the benefits of a client's office chairs.

'He wanted to know if we could do one of the whole body,' Abdel-Malek said.

The teaching hospital in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, had difficulty obtaining cadavers to teach dissection because religious and cultural beliefs in most of the Middle East dictate that bodies of the dead be buried within 24 hours.

Cyber-Anatomy's current human anatomy model, called MedVR, has more than 13,500 anatomical landmarks labeled and more than 25,000 cryogenic cross-sections. It also has 4,300 structures modeled in 3-D.

A big marketing breakthrough for the company came when it struck a deal with Elsevier, the publisher of the iconic 'Grey's Anatomy' text and of Netter's 'Atlas of Human Anatomy.' Cyber-Anatomy used digital 'texture wrapping' technology to create 3-D anatomical models based on the original drawings used in the Netter's Atlas, which is considered the gold standard of anatomical references. The company made Cyber-Anatomy's 3-D products identical to the original drawings of iconic medical illustrator Frank Netter.

Today, Cyber-Anatomy has close to 110 models in fields ranging from chemistry to zoology. A recent addition was a 3-D interactive version of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements that allows users to see the molecules in three dimensions and how they change in certain chemical reactions.

Cyber-Anatomy has only a small office on South Gilbert Street in Iowa City because it uses virtual work teams. Several former students of Abdel-Malek live and work in the Estes Park, Colo., area. Other employees work from home in California, Texas and elsewhere.

Some of the company's products even take on a kind of Iowa texture. There is, for example, the botanical model of the corn plant that shows its full life cycle.

Adoption of Cyber-Anatomy's products has gone faster in overseas markets, Lineback said. The sales cycle in the United States educational markets tends to be long and a little slow, he added.