Cincinnati Children’s is colorful, bright, and full of details meant to catch kids’ eyes. So it should be no surprise that when it comes to explaining conditions and treatments, our Media Lab serves as an in-house version of Pixar.

The creative work happening here helps transport kids and their families into the body through handheld models of common organ malformations, animated videos, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) games.

Inside the Media Lab, 3-D printed models of heart defects fill a half-wall of shelves. Jeff Cimprich, a medical artist, opens one of the plastic hearts with an atrioventricular canal defect that shows a single large chamber without ventricular atrial septal tissue. Immediately, the rare condition becomes easier to understand.

“With a lot of the defects,” Cimprich explains, “you really need to see what’s going on inside.”

The Media Lab began 10 years ago with just Cimprich and Ken Tegtmeyer, MD, Media Lab Director. From the beginning, their mission was to develop careful anatomical modeling—be it a physical object or a digital one.

“We want to get the anatomy as good as we can get it,” Tegtmeyer says, “so that in theory any level of learner would be able to use it.”

Interestingly, the Media Lab’s Heartpedia app sees big spikes in downloads each July as residents turn over.

From cartoons to 3-D printing

Over the past decade, the Media Lab has added two artists and another physician to build a deep stock of 3-D models and animated videos.

Some animations can appear technical, like a recent project by medical animator Cat Musgrove that explains how fertility-saving surgery works. Other short videos include kid-friendly cartoon characters like Max the Angry Macrophage, Norm the Normal Heart, and Como, a cartoon dog that explains thrombotic microangiopathy.

More recently the Media Lab has developed AR and VR pieces for retraining nurses and staff on various devices. Artist Matthew Nelson is currently building an AR program that can simulate code scenarios.

In many ways, work at the Media Lab mimics any animation shop—storyboarding, modeling, rigging and eventually animating the images. However, this team works closely with physicians to keep the details accurate.

“Because we’re on-site, it makes it really easy for us just to walk over and show a doctor what we’re working on,” says Cimprich.

Models make a difference

A critical care physician himself, Tegtmeyer says he offers both general medical knowledge to the team, and for sub-specialty work, he finds out what the animators need to know “without getting too deep into the weeds.”

Ryan Moore, MD, a cardiologist, is the Media Lab’s Associate Medical Director. He recently studied families who already had some understanding of their child’s heart conditions who then were introduced to the Heartpedia app, 3-D printed models, and animations of their child’s condition or procedure.

Moore heard time and again variations of, “I never understood this before, and my kid’s eight years old.”

“Doctors and nurses have always been up here with their knowledge,” says Moore, holding a hand high. “The Media Lab helps bring families closer to that level. Now they understand what we’re talking about.”