• 10.31.14

Find Out What Doctors Are Going To Do To You With These Video-Game-Inspired Graphics

Patients facing scary procedures can finally have a clue what their doctor is saying.

Find Out What Doctors Are Going To Do To You With These Video-Game-Inspired Graphics

Say you or a loved one are about to have a complex surgery. The doctor might draw you a sketch or direct you to an online diagram explaining what’s going to happen. But these can be hard for non-medical professionals to understand, especially during times when it’s hard to concentrate on anything (i.e. right before a surgery). A 3-D animation created using video game techniques, however, could be easier to grasp.


As part of a collaboration between Stanford Children’s Health and Lighthaus, Inc., a a 3-D interactive look at unifocalization, a 12-hour surgery performed on children born with a rare and deadly heart defect, is now available online. Surgeons at Stanford are directing parents of patients there and answering any remaining questions afterwards.

To create the animation, Lighthaus used Unity, a video game engine. “Instead of using it to conjure alien fantasy worlds, we’re using it to conjure reality. It’s all the same techniques,” says David Sarno, founder of Lighthaus.

Sarno, who takes on the producer and writer roles in creating these animations, was a technology reporter at the Los Angeles Times for nearly a decade. During a journalism fellowship at Stanford, he became interested in the use of 3-D interactive graphics to aid in storytelling. After talking his work over with a team at Stanford Children’s Health, he realized that 3-D animations could be the perfect tool to explain complex medical topics.

Before the 3-D graphics became available to explain surgeries, “I would just describe it the best I could over the phone to the parents,” says Dr. Frank Hanley, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford Children’s Health and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “This process can still make it hard for a family to gain a complete understanding.”

A quick look at the Facebook page for the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford shows that people are grateful for the animations. “Thank you for sharing this video. I have a better understanding now,” writes one commenter. “This is SO cool!,” writes another.

“I loved seeing this,” says Tricia Jorritsma, the mother of an 11-month-old being treated by Hanley. “It’s the first time the specific ins and outs of Noah’s operation have become really clear to me, and it’s so much better than all the other explanations.”


Next, Sarno and his team plan on making 3-D graphics to illustrate the surgery for a common congenital brain condition. While the graphics are already available for anyone to access online, Stanford is thinking about how to make them more widely known in the medical community.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.