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Inventors of the Year 2016

Single Outstanding Invention

Sometimes, an invention is a game-changer. Dr. Klaus Engel of Siemens Healthineers in Erlangen, Germany, has led medical imaging into a new era with cinematic rendering. Instead of sectional images that only radiologists can assess, this procedure converts data from X-ray machines or computed tomography (CT) scanners into photorealistic images of the inside of the body. For this, Dr. Engel has won an award as Inventor of the Year 2016 in the Exceptional Inventions category.

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Inspiration from Hollywood

“Cinematic rendering” derives its name from the progress in animation technology driven primarily by the movie company Pixar. Developers at Pixar were the first to enhance computer-animated cartoons with lighting effects like in nature. This is the only way to make the cartoon figures look plastic and act realistically. Rendering is the process in which images are generated from raw data.

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Making medical images understandable

Cinematic rendering was presented to the public in November 2014. The images attracted attention in the medical community throughout the world. Since then, many medical practitioners have used the method in trials; the software merely needs to be installed in imaging systems. Doctors can use it for planning operations, discussions with patients and other doctors, and training.

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Key is lighting that is as natural as possible

Procedures already existed before the invention of cinematic rendering for CT scans to present arteries, veins, bones and tissue in 3D, but there was no realistic lighting and thus no true spatial dimension. That can be achieved only if one knows how the structures would reflect light if they were freed from surrounding tissues. The depth of an image is created by means of soft and hard shadows as well as reflections – in short, everything that makes it look realistic.

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The trick: identifying relevant light paths

The propagation of light is a highly complex matter. Every light ray has been scattered innumerable times before reaching the viewer’s retina. Since even the most powerful computer cannot cope when it comes to real-time computing of the millions of light paths that every object reflects, Dr. Engel and his team came up with the idea of using mathematical Monte Carlo simulation to identify and compute only the most significant photon paths.

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I’ve been an enthusiastic computer gamer since childhood, and I always wanted to know how the interactive graphics and sound in games are created. The progress made by computer graphics in recent years inspired me to develop the cinematic rendering method. We’re still far from finished with our research and want to get a lot more out of the raw data in the future.

Dr. Klaus Engel, Developer, Siemens Healthineers