Virtual Reality for Surgical Planning: An Interview With Byeol (Star) Kim

Virtual Reality

Byeol Star Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. She is concurrently teaching a course, Human-Robot Interaction, in the Department of Computer Science. Her research expertise is human-computer interaction, especially for medical and virtual/augmented reality applications. At her current advisor’s, Dr. Axel Krieger, lab, she joined a project on creating patient-specific vascular grafts that are hemodynamically evaluated through computational fluid dynamics simulations and biodegradable. Thinking from the doctors’ perspectives, she thought creating software that provides features to perform complicated tasks and calculations that requires deep engineering knowledge could bolster diagnostic accuracies and preoperative planning. Her proposed idea has extensively been explored and developed as her Ph.D. dissertation topic, and it also became the foundation of her startup, Corfix Medical – a medical technology company specializing in cardiac surgical simulations and optimization with virtual reality. Star will be speaking at our upcoming webinar.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with Virtual Reality? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Star: My first exposure to virtual reality was back in my Junior year in college in 2013. I joined a lab that studied users through data such as behavioral and physiological responses for developing medical systems and devices. To obtain data that accurately represented the users, research projects necessitated providing most realistic environment with known number of variations. This was accomplished through virtual reality environment. Before purchasing head-mounted device, I had relied on a simulation room where 3D screens were projected onto the walls and participants were required to wear special glasses. Since everything was wired and the location was fixed by our codes, there were multiple constraints in our design of the experiments. In order for our users to interact with the environment, we need to create a physical object and write codes to control it. Therefore, designing experiments could take months to even a year. Before HMD devices like Oculus and HTC Vive became widely available with controllers, I really wished that virtual reality could allow for more direct interaction with virtual environment and objects. I’m glad that the current technology enables all of that!

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in Virtual Reality?

Star: A few years ago, I was introduced to some pediatric cardiologists and cardiac surgeons who were really interested in personalized medicine. However, their limited knowledge in engineering made it nearly impossible for to understand and apply the methodologies that were explored by engineers. I wanted to help doctors personalize medicine by developing a tool that enables them to perform the engineering tasks really easily. With the basic acknowledgement of the importance of understanding patient anatomies, I decided to first validate the effectiveness of VR technology in diagnosis. After seeing that VR can actually help doctors better diagnose patients, I started developing a VR surgical planning tool for personalizing medicine.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in Virtual Reality? This can be a mentor, a patient, a celebrity, anyone basically. You can name more than one as well.

Star: I was most inspired by movies and animations. When I watch futuristic (sci-fi) films, I was always fascinated by how they portray the usage of VR/AR/MR. I always thought to myself how awesome it would be for me to become one of the pioneering groups utilizing these software to build life changing products.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Star: My motivation comes from my older sister. She always told me that she believes in me. I wanted to make positive impact on this society. My sister has always been there when I doubted myself. 

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Star: Limited resources including funding and patient data are definitely the biggest obstacles for my work. If I had an unlimited budget and longitudinal imaging and flow data of patients around the world, I could utilize artificial intelligence techniques to build a robust prediction algorithm. I want this prediction algorithm to be able to identify all possible medical complications that can occur with any surgical approaches and devices needed for a patient’s health condition. Then, I want doctors to see these with their eyes as realistic as possible to prepare and perform the most optimal surgeries using VR and AR technologies.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in Virtual Reality/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Star: One of our challenges in VR is the latency. The finer mesh we use for enhancing the quality of the anatomical visualization, the more graphics and processing power are necessary. Even with a great VR compatible laptop/computer, we are facing lagging problem that induce the VR sickness. Another challenge is the limited tactile feedback in VR. Though the VR controllers often provide vibration, it is not enough for doctors to feel as if they are touching some anatomies. If there is a wireless glove that can provide a tactile feedback, I believe that VR would become an excellent tool for training doctors on surgeries virtually, instead of relying on cadavers or volunteers. 

Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 


  • I want to have a power to heal people
  • I want my family to live happily and healthy
  • I want to be able to control time (e.g. go to past and future)

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advices you heard should they ignore? 

Star: Taking classes is not enough. I’ve seen plenty of students who may not have the best GPA but have extensive lengths of project experiences regardless of it being their personal projects or research projects. Building products involve processes that are not clearly known. They need to be able to utilize their fundamental knowledge in certain areas into coming up with hypotheses and potential ways to solve problems, which does not always come from taking school classes. GPA is important but try to get some outside class experiences. If possible, attend Hackathons. 

Some may believe that without having CS degree, you can’t do anything. But, no! You can always teach yourself. It’s never too late to learn anything new!

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