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New Eye Tracking Controlled VR System Enhances MRI Scans for Young Children

By MedImaging International staff writers
Posted on 20 Jun 2024
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Image: The new eye tracking technology enables young children to engage in an immersive VR experience while undergoing MRI (Photo courtesy of KCL)
Image: The new eye tracking technology enables young children to engage in an immersive VR experience while undergoing MRI (Photo courtesy of KCL)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans are notoriously noisy and can be particularly stressful for children, often causing discomfort and movements that may lead to the failure of the scan. A new development in eye tracking technology now allows young children to engage in a Virtual Reality (VR) experience during MRI scans, which helps reduce their anxiety and limits movement.

This cutting-edge eye tracking technology, developed by researchers at King’s College London (KCL, London, UK), allows for gaze-based human-computer interaction (HCI)—the process of determining where a person is looking—that operates immediately and robustly without the need for explicit setup tasks. Integrating this technology into an MR-compatible VR system enables young children to instantly dive into an immersive and interactive VR experience during MRI scans. Traditionally, gaze estimation in HCI requires calibration or a complex setup at the beginning of each session, which complicates instant control and affects usability, particularly for young children who need straightforward and rapid interaction with technology.

The innovative eye-tracking technology developed at KCL allows for immediate user control, making it the core interaction interface of their pioneering MR-compatible VR system. This system is designed to immerse children in a virtual world during their MRI scans, engaging them quickly with VR to alleviate anxiety and minimize movements. To enhance engagement, game and video content tailored to individual children's preferences has been developed. Interaction within the VR system is intuitive; children simply fix their gaze on items on the screen to trigger actions like playing games, watching videos, or interacting with favorite cartoon characters.

Since continuous user control is essential for maintaining immersion in the VR experience, the eye-tracking system continually updates itself based on the child's interactions, improving the accuracy of gaze estimation the more the child engages. While the VR system aims to minimize head movements during scans as much as possible, not all movements can be eliminated. To address this, the team employed the DISORDER method, previously developed at KCL for baby MRI scans, which performs retrospective motion correction on the images obtained. By combining these innovations, the researchers have developed a new system capable of acquiring high-quality brain MR images from awake young children.

“Our new technology shows promise to solve virtually all of the limitations of existing systems,” said Dr. Kun Qian, Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Centre for the Developing Brain, School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences and study lead author. “Our approach opens new possibilities for awake MR studies in young children for both clinical and research purposes, potentially reducing the need for non-trivial interventions like anesthesia and enabling a new generation of MR-based studies of awake brain processing in this formative period of life.”

“Today it is normal to be using phones, tablets and computers for entertainment and many other important tasks,” added Professor Jo Hajnal, Professor of imaging Science in the Centre for the Developing Brain, School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences and program leader for this study. “Everyone expects these devices to respond immediately and be intuitive to use, so forcing users to endure calibration processes and delays in starting is ever more challenging for them. The instant gaze technology we have created makes gaze-based user interfaces feel completely comfortable and natural to use. Feedback has been incredibly positive, both from children and adults, suggesting that this technology could make a real difference to MR examinations, with widespread benefits.”

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