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Meet VirtaMed: “Photorealism is great, but solving a teaching problem is more important”

March 29, 2016

Basil Fierz is part of the software engine team that works to improve the performance of VirtaMed’s surgical simulator systems. In other words, Basil’s job is to solve problems that customers didn’t even know they had.

In 2011, during his first year as a Software Engineer at VirtaMed, Basil helped the company present a TURP laser simulator prototype to a potential customer and development partner. The rendering left something to be desired, and the customer was not impressed by the level of reality. At this point Basil, still working on his PhD at ETH Zurich, offered to implement a new kind of technology to tackle the issue. This technology, known to Basil through his computer graphics background, turned out to be the decisive factor in making the customer happy and pulling through a successful development project.

This was a rare moment of basking in the customer’s approval: usually Basil’s work is successful when an end-user doesn’t even realize he’s there. In early 2015, the engine team spent a great effort to decrease the simulators’ startup time. The work was successful and professionally satisfying, but most clients never noticed a thing. “They probably get annoyed a lot less often than before, though”, Basil wagers.

As the entire engine team’s work is often hidden under the hood, Basil’s increased impact has become somewhat less tangible over the years. Throughout his VirtaMed career Basil has accumulated vast amounts of experience, and today he is a walking library of simulation technology. In addition to solving problems, he now spends a significant amount of his time helping others solve problems.

“If you can spend hours on something without getting bored, you will probably become good at it”

Basil’s way into science seems like a straightforward one: both his parents and grandparents were engineers and scientists; he built bows, arrows and model airplanes with them, and he learned to use a computer before he learned to read. However, at ETH Zurich he also met people who had discovered engineering sciences at a much later age, and they still made it to the top of their discipline. It’s important to support kids who are interested in science, but it’s crucial for a future scientist to be genuinely interested in the field. “If you can spend hours on something without getting bored, you will probably become good at it”, Basil summarizes.

The key is to invest time, and to go beyond what is expected, Basil advises. “You can probably become a good engineer by attending the lectures, solving the exercises and reading the books. But if you want to go truly deep, for a few years you need to devote a major part of your life to discover the field outside the scope of lectures. You need to find out what other people have done, but you also need to take the time to reflect on your own earlier solutions and to learn from your mistakes.”

Basil’s passion is computer science; he sees it as “the” interdisciplinary engineering science. “It’s basically applicable everywhere”, Basil explains, and adds that this balance between disciplines is what VirtaMed, too, is all about. Basil loves to solve technical problems, but at VirtaMed he doesn’t use his brain in an empty bubble: he gets to work with medical doctors, with external partners, hardware developers, and other software developers; he has to be able to view puzzles from many angles. Basil’s career plan was to develop game technology, and this is exactly what lies behind all VirtaMed simulators. “It’s basically the same field, but in a more stable and interesting environment”, he laughs.

“No future doctor should leave university without training on a virtual reality simulator”

In theory, it’s possible to create a physically accurate simulation of an endoscopic procedure, down to the most detailed level of known physical formulae. However, in real life computing power sets limits – even for a performance specialist. Visual computing, Basil’s specialty in the field of computer science, is all about finding the appropriate level of approximation and concentrating on what matters the most.

VirtaMed is proud of its realistic 3-D graphics, but visual realism is not the cornerstone of a surgical simulator. “We do not aim to build photorealistic simulators; we aim to build simulators that solve a teaching problem”, Basil declares. “Sure, it’s nice to create graphics that look as real as possible, and we do have high standards for visual realism. But it’s much more important to make sure the simulator teaches the right things the right way.”

What Basil really wants to see in the future is a real breakthrough in medical education policies. “No future doctor leaves university without having being trained and evaluated on an objective virtual reality simulator”, Basil describes his goal. “Hopefully a VirtaMed simulator”, he adds.


Would you like to know more?
Physically Based Rendering by Matt Pharr, Greg Humphreys, and Pat Hanrahan

This book is for those who search for physical accuracy in their renderings. “This one really caught my eye during studies. It’s a very good book about rendering technology from a conceptual point of view.”
Real-Time Rendering by Tomas Akenine-Möller, Eric Haines, and Naty Hoffman.

This book helps to find the appropriate level of approximation when simulating reality. “It lays a comprehensive foundation for anyone aspiring to become a good graphics programmer.”