Eric and Brian Gantwerker spent hours shooting enemies in "Contra" and blowing themselves up in "Mega Man," two classic video games from their youth.
Now surgeons, the brothers were playing games together again at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week to learn how the latest in entertainment technologies can help train doctors to save lives.
"In medical education, we're not necessarily at the forefront of technology," said Dr. Eric Gantwerker, an ear, nose and throat pediatric surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "So to see what is available and what can potentially be applied to medical education, and technology in medicine just in general, it's amazing."
"This is the bleeding edge," said Dr. Brian Gantwerker, a neurosurgeon and head of the medical practice at the Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles, with no obvious pun intended.
They were among six doctors from around the country on a tour organized by Level EX, a Chicago startup that's creating medical training apps based on visual effects and other technologies developed by the video game industry.
CEO Sam Glassenberg, who led Microsoft's advanced graphics team before founding two video game companies, started Level EX after writing a popular surgical training application for his physician parents in his spare time.
While the video game industry is rapidly advancing real-life simulation technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, medical training technology is 10 to 20 years behind, Glassenberg said.
He organized the tour for some of Level EX's medical advisers to help close that gap, especially by exposing them to high-end graphics that simulate the interaction of real-world objects like fire and blood with their surroundings.
Combined with emerging haptic technologies that simulate how an object feels in a virtual world, surgeons could practice in a virtual operating room before touching a real patient.
"When you cut tissue, it's soft, it's squishy," Glassenberg said. "If you cauterize something, you burn tissue. We need to be able to enable surgeons to take a scalpel, to take a cauterizing tool and apply it any way they want to and have the computer figure out how the tissue should respond. We didn't have this computer power several years ago, now we do."
Although haptic technology hasn't advanced that far, Brian Gantwerker was inspired by what he saw.
"To be able to feel the tissue and the way the instruments feel in your hand would ultimately be the holy grail of what we want to accomplish," he said. "And for simulating a disaster, it's much better to have a problem in the virtual world and learn how to manage it. This adds a layer of safety and space to learn an instrument."
The group started the day at the Menlo Park headquarters of Oculus, the Facebook-owned company behind the Rift virtual reality headgear. They toured San Francisco game engine developer Unity Technologies before going to Moscone Center to try VR games in chipmaker Nvidia's booth and learn more about video graphics in the Epic Games booth.
Dr. Komal Bajaj, a reproductive geneticist, OB/GYN and clinical co-director of the New York City Health+ Hospitals simulation center, believes game technology can help medical professionals continue to broaden their knowledge.
She tried an educational virtual reality experience called "The Body VR," which simulates a trip inside a human body.
"Even as someone who's been in practice for 10-plus years, I've actually never seen that, because ... I've never been inside a blood vessel before," Bajaj said. "We were all there shooting out blood vessels and looking at the nucleus and shooting pieces of DNA. It's almost like you have read the book and now you go see the movie."
Dr. Charles Lei, an emergency room doctor and assistant director of undergraduate medical education at Vanderbilt University, said the costs of incorporating video game technology into medical training are still unknown and might be high. However, he said, those costs must be weighed against the expenses tied to existing training methods, such as bringing in actors and reserving space to stage a five-hour emergency room event to train a few medical students.
"The way simulations work, you do things over and over and over again, talk about why it worked, why it didn't work and run the same scenario again," he said. "If you can buy a game that teaches you how to do a cardiac arrest code, and if that game has 10 different scenarios, if the programmers can program more and more, then the students can do it on their own time."
The Gantwerkers believe video games are already helping younger surgeons who have spent countless hours poking game controller buttons.
"We're seeing a new generation of surgeons who have much higher hand-eye coordination because they've had to do it for so long," Eric Gantwerker said.
Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ChronicleBenny ___
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