Visible Body’s anatomy visualizations augment reality with help from Apple
The call came to the offices of Visible Body on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Apple was on the line, asking for the Newton company’s take on the augmented reality technology coming to its iPhones and iPads.
By the following Monday, two designers from Visible Body were en route to Cupertino, Calif., one of a handful of companies invited inside as Apple prepared to roll out the biggest push yet to turn an esoteric technology into an everyday product for the masses.
“We looked at this and we said, ‘Yes, this looks like it has the potential for mass-market adoption, and we like where Apple’s going with it,’ ” said Andrew Bowditch, Visible Body’s chief executive.
The call wasn’t entirely out of the blue. Visible Body makes software that allows users to explore highly detailed visualizations of human anatomy, often for use in medical education, and Bowditch said his company has often shared its product plans with Apple as the electronics giant prepares to release new devices.
A bit lost in the noise around the September release of the new iPhone was Apple’s decision to include in its latest operating software a more powerful engine for augmented reality, which superimposes digital images and representations on real-life settings.
Pokémon Go and a few other apps have shown the promise of the technology for the mass market, but the more advanced versions of AR had been well beyond the capability of most phones and tablets.
Bowditch and his twin brother and cofounder, Matthew, had been anticipating Apple would go big on AR, and their 35-person outfit had already been experimenting with new applications.
By the time Apple called, Visible Body was ready. The company had recently dropped the price of its popular anatomy atlas to 99 cents and was preparing to flip the switch on new AR capabilities. Now, iPhone users can fire up the program and project a strikingly realistic and detailed rendering of a human cadaver on a horizontal surface, such as a tabletop.
The move into augmented reality is the latest evolution for the Bowditch brothers, who in 1990 cofounded a company that specialized in image editing, then split off seven years later to form Argosy Publishing, which produced specialized content for educational publishers.
At one point, Argosy had close to 100 employees, but then the financial crisis and recession hit, and the company retrenched. Looking for ways to survive the turmoil in the publishing business, the Bowditch brothers settled on developing software that would allow users to explore and study from the three-dimensional medical illustrations and models Argosy had developed. Now known as Visible Body, the company expanded beyond business customers to sell directly to consumers, with mobile versions just as smartphones and tablets exploded in popularity.
Matthew Bowditch, Visible Body’s chief financial officer, said revenues have increased 35 percent over the past year, to about $5 million, largely on the strength of growing sales of software licenses to academic institutions, and consumer versions of its medical atlas after the company reduced the price from $24.99.
Its augmented reality program allows users to overlay images of a cadaver onto a physical surface, such as a conference table at work, and choose what systems or parts of the body to display. Using an iPad to demonstrate, Andrew Bowditch zoomed in on the chest of the projected cadaver and watched as internal organs came into view. He used a finger to rotate the body, then touched various muscles and body parts to bring up a description of each.
Bowditch said the interactivity features are especially in demand among users.
“If you give this to the student, and they place the model on the table like we’ve just done, they literally will get up and move their whole body and look for stuff,” he said. “That’s so much more important when you have to remember something.”
Sarah A. Downey, a principal at the venture firm Accomplice who closely follows augmented reality technology, said she is expecting to see more from developers as AR enters the mainstream. She envisions applications that help members of organizations find their way to exclusive events or platforms that superimpose advertisements onto blank walls.
“The question that a lot of these developers are going to have to ask themselves,” Downey said, “is what are the unique things that we can only do in augmented reality, or only do in virtual reality?”
Another Boston company that looked forward to Apple’s AR rollout is Wayfair, which had been using AR to show off furniture on its shopping sites. With the new AR app for Apple devices, Wayfair shoppers use their mobile device to see a digital image of furniture exactly in the space where they want it; the item will remain in proportion as the user moves around the room, unlike in previous AR applications, where the rendering looked more like a stamp on the computer screen, with no relation to the space around it.
“At the moment, customers don’t really know what AR is, and AR on Apple now is bringing that to the masses,” said Mike Festa, director of Wayfair Next, the company’s research and development team. “So people are going to start to have an understanding of what it even means to put something in their space and walk around it.”
Apple’s Sept. 12 rollout of the new iPhone, AR tech, and other goodies did not include a shoutout to the team at Visible Body, leaving Andrew Bowditch disappointed as the presentation focused mostly on games. Still, it’s hard to remain upset with the tech giant whose support helped make Visible Body’s atlas the top app in its class in the iTunes store.
“In my opinion, they missed an opportunity to reach out for what I would call a transformative educational experience that they could have shown on stage,” he said. “But I’m close to this, and at the same time, I still love Apple.”