4 reasons software will play a crucial role in new medical imaging developments

November 08, 2012
Arto Järvinen
by Arto Järvinen, director of research & development, ContextVision

Today's families interact with photo and video in a way that would (and does) boggle our grandparents.

Many of us can capture and share high-resolution video with our mobile phones, recording almost every important moment. With powerful face recognition software we can choose to automatically tag faces to organize our image files.

Fifteen years ago only professionals with an array of special-purpose workstations with specialized software could undertake any complex imaging task, and today we can do many of them with a device that fits in our pocket. The same intricate technologies that have changed how we interact with family photos and video are now also enabling new medical imaging possibilities.

From hardware to software

In the past, whether the modality was X-ray, ultrasound or MR, medical imaging was primarily fueled by equipment advances. Consider the development of X-ray technology in the early twentieth century. From the invention of the first vacuum tube in 1904, the thermionic diode, to the 1913 invention of the Coolidge X-ray tube, the pioneers of X-ray tubes learned from each iteration, experimenting with tube size and temperature until the optimal combination was found. A form of the Coolidge tube remains in use today.

This century, the combination of powerful but inexpensive standard hardware combined with special purpose software will be the dominant development force. This shift can be attributed to four primary drivers.

1. Exponential hardware growth: Thanks to pressure from the consumer electronics industry, such as the gaming industry and mobile communications industry, processing speeds have grown exponentially. The graphics processing unit, or GPU, is used more and more not only for gaming but also for general purpose computing, either replacing the CPU or working with it. As GPU technology rapidly develops and standard programming languages emerge, it increases the potential to fully leverage software advances. Huge volumes of images can be processed at unprecedented speed. With the right combination of hardware and software, real-time processing - which is mandatory for certain applications - becomes possible.

2. Using software to replace expensive hardware and reduce costs: When combined with the appropriate hardware, today's software can cost-effectively deliver advanced capabilities, which previously required expensive special purpose hardware. For example, ultrasound scan conversion was originally a process completed by hardware. This can now be accomplished with advanced image processing software. Additionally, software can be used to manipulate images, without the patient present, revealing additional details and pathologies while maximizing the throughput levels of costly equipment.

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