Medical students have had a glimpse into the possible future of education at a trial of 3D holographic projection technology carried out to examine its effect as a learning tool.

3D animations of human anatomy and physiology were beamed into a lecture hall for a series of medical lectures at St George’s, University of London. The students’ feedback is now being studied to investigate whether the technology – which does not require 3D glasses to view – aided their understanding of complex topics.

The junior doctors behind the Holography-Assisted Medical Lecturing and E-Tutoring (HAMLET) project – Drs Pedro Campos and Kapil Sugand from St George’s Hospital, who worked with SGUL’s Medical and Healthcare Education department on the 3D lecture trial – believe this is the first time this technology has been trialled at any university.

Drs Campos and Sugand set up HAMLET after deciding to find more effective ways for medical students to absorb information and understand topics than through traditional lectures – which usually comprise of 2D static images and text – alone. HAMLET was developed in partnership with the MSk Lab at Imperial College London, which provided funding for the animations and assistance with research methodology. Dr Sugand is currently studying for a PhD at Imperial.

Dr Sugand said: “Whereas the average attention span is up to 30 minutes in a standard one-hour lecture, we are using educational theory to construct dynamic animations to simplify abstract concepts, and stimulate and prolong attention spans.” Drs Sugand and Campos also said that improving understanding of complex concepts is likely to make better and safer doctors.

The HAMLET team developed a lecture for medical students and junior doctors around a specially designed 3D animation of the human kidney system, which appeared as a three-by-three metre image in the lecture theatre. The same lecture was conducted without the 3D animation and all students were asked to provide feedback, to examine whether it helped their understanding.

In addition to the renal system experiment, further lectures demonstrated other 3D animations – sourced from international animation studios– to demonstrate more anatomical and physiological topics. Subjects covered included: trauma and orthopaedics; polytrauma and surgical emergencies; neurology; cardiology; and malaria.

The technology uses a 21st century version of an old stage illusion called Pepper’s Ghost to achieve the 3D effect. This combines glass and special lighting techniques to make objects appear as if they are floating.

While 3D technology is too expensive to be used routinely in education at the moment, Drs Campos and Sugand hope their experiment will indicate whether it could in principal become a useful tool for educators, in other fields as well as medicine and healthcare. The presentations done so far may also be used to engage with patients and promote health education in the community.