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Meet VirtaMed: “You have to learn the rules before you can break them”

September 27, 2016
Our 3D Artist Johannes Kiesbauer has learned that if you want creative freedom, you need to work hard, try different things, and make many mistakes. Understanding basic laws of physics and the workings of a programmer’s mind helps, too.

The most influential year of Johannes's life was the year he spent in art school as a teenager. Johannes found himself in a group of 40 students of varying ages and backgrounds, challenged by excellent and critical teachers. Everyone was passionate about art, and everyone worked hard. Instead of just practicing his technical skills, Johannes learned a new way to look at the world; he learned to keep an open mind and to study how everything works.

Moving from Biel to study game design at the Zurich University of the Arts was a culture shock for Johannes. Zurich was a city of bankers and sleek business people, and the alternative artist had difficulties fitting in. After struggling for a while he made a decision: he would not care about what everybody else was doing, he would do his own thing. If a design assignment didn't inspire him, Johannes would invent an assignment of his own.

“This was the best decision of my life; it forced me to take responsibility for my own development”, Johannes remembers. Success followed: when Johannes and a classmate of his concentrated on doing exactly what they wanted during their diploma work, the result was a game that yielded critical acclaim and a handshake from the university’s president.

Johannes had a stellar game design career ahead of him: he was offered a job at a Triple-A company, the kind that would get his CV shortlisted in any future job search in the field. There was just one problem: the game this esteemed company was working on was terribly boring. Johannes is by no means against simple entertainment, as long as there are fresh ideas and ambition; this game lacked those. He didn't take the job.

After a period of soul searching Johannes dropped game design and decided to become a primary school teacher. After all, there will always be kids who need to learn. Close to the end of his studies he stumbled upon VirtaMed and took a freelance design job at the company out of sheer convenience. “I was young and I needed the money”, Johannes laughs. With his game design experience, the modeling work seemed like a piece of cake.

Now, over four years and many allnighters later, he admits that the work at VirtaMed wasn't as simple as he'd expected; also, what was meant to be a quick gig before graduation turned into a long term plan. Johannes realized that although he enjoyed teaching, his true passion was still design. “School kids deserve someone who's a teacher at heart.”

“We are growing from a startup that creates prototypes into an organized company that develops systems”

When Johannes started at VirtaMed, the 3D modeling team would do what the programmers told them to do: they created meshes with given parameters without really understanding what the parameters stood for. This was possible in a small company that wanted to create unique simulators customized for specific needs; the innovative programming solutions and imaginative design workarounds made sure the end user was impressed with the product nonetheless. However, this was no way to grow a business.

If VirtaMed wanted to scale up, it needed to streamline its development process. The artists took the challenge: they had to learn to understand the underlying system, they had to learn to read the software code, and they had to learn to create the physical as well as the visual design. In return, the programmers also had to organize their output so that even an artist could make sense of it. Tools needed to be stored in obvious places, files needed to be named systematically, and comments needed to be written piously.

“There was a lot of pain, sweat and tears,” Johannes admits. The work paid off: Now that Johannes knows how the entire process works, he has much more control over the design from concept to finished products. And since his virtual work space has been properly organized, he can spend his hours on creative work instead of looking for files and tools. For customers this means better simulators, faster development cycles, and lower costs.

”We challenged ourselves: how far can we go, how clean can we make a product?”

The recently launched ArthroS™ Hip Module was a true test to this new order: the developers threw out all legacy code and modeling hacks and started off with a clean slate. The hip became Johannes's baby: he had his hand in all the design of the module's inner world, from real-life references and initial concepts through physical behavior to the final textures and finishing touches. “This kind of versatility is something no big game design company would allow me,” Johannes points out.

Johannes felt validated when one of VirtaMed's medical advisers tested a late prototype of the hip. The arthroscopic surgeon went straight in with a hook and pulled the skin away from the bone, in order to avoid scratching the bone and the cartilage when cutting a new entry portal. Johannes had not anticipated the move, yet the simulation worked without a glitch: the entire virtual joint had been built on sound physical models so it would behave like a real hip joint—even when something unexpected happened.

Having pulled through a successful project and learned how the simulators are constructed, Johannes feels ready to turn his gaze on the underlying teaching principles. VirtaMed simulators have been mostly built to meet an immediate need: physicians, associations, and device manufacturers have called for simulators to train for a range of pre-defined procedures. However, the teacher in Johannes believes surgical simulation has much more to give to medical education as an integrated part of the curriculum.

Would you like to know more?

Blender
“A good free and open-source 3D creation software. When I started game design, Blender was just a small side product, but now it has turned into something really usable. It was hard to switch my workflow and knowledge from a paid product into Blender, so younger designers are lucky to get to start with this.”

GNU Image Manipulation Program
“Another free and open-source tool, similar to Photoshop. I have worked with Photoshop for too long to make the move, but Gimp is a great tool for an aspiring artist or a young freelancer looking to create art without having to pay huge prices or use illegally downloaded software.”

“A word of advice: don't listen to anyone who says there is only one right way.”
“Don't let anyone tell you what the correct way to draw something is. You should also not think that your way is the best one: there are many different styles, and they can all be right. Practice hard and never stop learning new ways of doing things. Only once you’ve learned the rules can you break them.”