Machine vision will be a critical technology for combining the contradictory demands of high quality performance standards in medical technology and reduced costs. With this in mind, Vision 2011, to be held in Stuttgart from November 8-10, will include a new focus on how camera-based medical technologies can help improve early detection, diagnosis, treatment, archiving and training methods.

"Feedback from Vision visitors in the last two years revealed that the topic of medical technology is becoming increasingly important. This industry is now regarded as the fifth most important visitor industry," said Florian Niethammer, Vision Project Manager. Suporting this idea, the VDMA Machine Vision Group is planning to hold talks relating to medical technology applications during the popular Industrial Vision Days.

The range of applications in medical technology and the inventiveness of innovations continues to increase: mini-cameras for endoscopy or minimally invasive surgery, scanners to improve the quality of dentures, skin scanners to identify skin cancer, sensitive digital cameras to analyse the retina in ophthalmology, movement analyses in sports medicine and orthopaedics, robot-aided operations, simulation of cosmetic improvements, monitoring and documentation of operations, as well as machine vision systems to support medical training are just some examples.

Illustrating the Trend

Four exhibitors at Vision 2011 exemplify what is important in this respect and how useful machine vision systems can be in medical technology. For example, the ace cameras from Basler are being used to an increasing extent in digital dentistry. The image data of the dental impression recorded intraorally with a dental scanner are converted into a three-dimensional (3-D) data model and are transmitted directly online to a dental laboratory where the dentures can be modelled automatically on a fully digital basis.

"High-speed is essential in this application. With 100 images per second, the ace camera ensures that the scanning operation saves times," according to Alexander Temme, sales director at Basler. "At the same time it provides good image quality with low noise and excellent light sensitivity. This is important since not every part of the dental impression can be equally well-illuminated, but every detail is vital."

The focal point of the research at Carinthian Tech Research (CTR) in Villach, Austria, is multispectral machine vision, which, in addition to 3-D information, provides spectral data. "In production processes, for example, chemical compounds or subtle color differences can be precisely analyzed. That also makes this technology so interesting for medical technology applications," said Dr. Raimund Leitner, head of multispectral machine vision research at CTR. "The system can provide data regarding benign birthmarks and malignant melanomas without having to remove the conspicuous birthmark by means of an operation."

"One frequent machine vision task in medical applications is non-contact optical tracking of movements as a man-machine interfacem," said Thomas Ruf, head of R&D at VRmagic Imaging. "In addition to precision and speed, stability and reliability are the decisive factors in this case." The company has developed Eyesi, an eye surgery simulator, which can be used by trainee eye surgeons as a training aid for operations without any risk for patients. The student sits at an operation microscope and guides freely movable instruments into the mechanical eye of a model head. Inside an optical tracking system transmits their position, alignment, and orientation to a computer. The behavior of liquids and tissues when touched by an instrument is simulated in real time.

Finally, it is important to note that medical technology contains a wide range of different imaging devices such as endoscopes, microscopes, X-ray units, CRT and MRI units, and operating theater monitoring cameras. The image sources used in these cases work with different interfaces, resolutions, video standards, and control options.

"One of the major challenges", says Rudolf Huber-Schwanninger, a medical technology specialist at Stemmer Imaging, "is to install all these image sources in the clinical environment, have a very wide range of cable concepts available, operate the cameras, and transmit, display, document and archive image and video data." Stemmer is addressing these challenges with newly developed products and concepts such as a medical video server that can be used to record, administer, display, and distribute any current video sources via LAN/WAN, regardless of whether they are SD, HD, analog or digital.

What Will the Future Bring?

"There are already camera-based treatments and diagnostic methods that permit a physical distance between the doctor and patient," says Basler's Temme. "These remote applications will definitely become more important in future." In his opinion, small systems are also conceivable at the local optician that could carry out analyses to prevent and detect eyesight diseases at an early stage.

Dr. Leitner from CTR noted, "In my opinion, molecular imaging will play a major role in future since it will make biological processes at a molecular, i.e. cellular, level visible and therefore provide an opportunity to detect diseases before they occur."

This focus on medical applications of machine vision supports the goal of Vision. According to Niethammer, "The objective of Vision is to grow further, strengthen user proximity, and extend its position as the world’s leading trade fair. The latest registration figures for Vision 2011 reveal that the recovery in the machine vision industry will have a direct impact on Vision 2011 because they are well above the figures from the previous year." With 323 exhibitors and an exhibition area of around 20,000 square meters, Vision 2010 also posted a record result.