Googling the body
With help from its Cambridge talent, the search giant offers professional-grade 3-D anatomical tours
Google Body, the Internet search giant’s tool for exploring human anatomy, will get a significant upgrade today, bolstered by what the company said is a substantial contribution from Google Inc.’s Cambridge office.
The “body browser,’’ launched as a beta product late last year, allows users to visually explore a three-dimensional human figure, zooming and scrolling over the virtual equivalent of a life-size female anatomical model.
A scroll bar allows users to peel away layers, exposing muscles, bones, organs, blood vessels, and nerves.
Today’s upgrade expands Google Body by adding a male figure and allowing users to annotate views and share those images and notes online.
“We originally built Google Body as a demonstration, but we’ve discovered that it has tremendous potential for teaching and patient education,’’ said Roni Zeiger, chief health strategist. “That’s why we’re putting in the effort to enhance it.’’
Google Body, which can be viewed using the newest versions of the Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome Web browsers (at http://bodybrowser.googlelabs.com), does not require a plug-in or an app. It uses a technology called WebGL to allow three-dimensional interactivity.
Google engineers said the product works best on newer computers. Because it is based on a number of new technologies, some users may have difficulties accessing the site, which is officially in beta test mode, meaning that Google is still fixing bugs.
Google Body’s interface is similar to the company’s Google Maps and Google Earth products. By using the slider on the site, a viewer can navigate through the skin to see muscles and tendons, then bones, then organs, then the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
At any point, a view can be expanded. Click on any body part, and a descriptive label appears.
Enter a body part as a search term, and the browser locates it on the virtual model.
Zeiger, who is based in the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, said the project serves two purposes: extending search to the human body and demonstrating the capabilities of new technologies like WebGL.
The development of Google Body was aided by contributions from a small group of Web developers in Google’s Cambridge office. Stephen Vinter, engineering director and site director in Kendall Square, said that local Google engineers have been talking about the project since he arrived four years ago.
“This project just made sense, because of the strong medical community here,’’ he said. “The only issue was the timing, because the technology just wasn’t there.’’
When WebGL became widely available in Web browsers last year, Vinter said, development of the project accelerated.
“It has been a classic 20 percent project,’’ Vinter said, referring to Google’s policy of allowing its engineers to devote 20 percent of their time to a personal effort. “No one worked on this full time. For us, and the other Google people who worked on it, this has always been a passionate, personal project.’’
The product advances the multimedia experience users can get online, Zeiger said. “Things like Google Body are raising the bar on what we should expect in a Web page,’’ he said.
But Zeiger, who is a physician, said that in the few months the product has been available, the creators have also been gratified by the response from doctors and teachers. Doctors are using Google Body to help explain diseases and treatments to patients, he said, and high school teachers of anatomy and physiology are using it instead of traditional anatomy textbooks and models.
“I feel a little bad for the plastic skeletons I trained on,’’ he said.
D.C. Denison can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: The original version of this story had the incorrect title for Roni Zeiger. He is Google’s chief health strategist.