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New app aims to tackle bone shortage

09 September 2014 @TeesUniNews


The lack of access to bones and skeletons for scientists and teachers could be solved by a forensic anthropologist who has used digital technology to revolutionise the way bone identification is taught.

Dr Tim Thompson, Reader in Biological and Forensic Anthropology at Teesside University, has previously warned that bones and skeletons are a finite resource which scientists often find difficult to access for teaching purposes.

Now, through his company anthronomics, Dr Thompson has launched Dactyl, an app which provides digitised models of bones and skeletons, allowing users to zoom in and out, access notes and add their own information on specific features of interest.

He teamed up with digital experts at Teesside University to use non-contact scanning on existing bones to help create the bespoke software which enables users to view complex 3D shapes from all angles by simply manipulating the image on screen by hand.

'Dactyl provides a way of accessing bone material when not in a laboratory and is extremely useful in places where they do not have access to skeletal material,' explained Dr Thompson, who founded anthronomics three years ago.

'Teaching skeletal anatomy is really very difficult. The bones we have are very old and fragile so they can’t be handled, yet they are very complex 3D shapes which students need to examine to see the fine details.

'The only other alternative is plastic casts which are expensive and don’t replicate the fine detail of bone.'

For many students, the lack of being able to study actual bones means when they move out of the laboratory much of their learning by necessity takes place when they begin work. The aim of Dactyl is to provide more efficiency whether they work in archaeology or as crime scene scientists.

It works by surface scanning bones and the images are then fed into the software allowing people to access the material either in a laboratory or at home.

Dr Thompson, who was recently awarded a National Teaching Fellowship for his unique work, added: 'This doesn’t replace studying the actual bones but it is the closest you can get to the real thing.

'I have been using Dactyl when teaching large groups and what makes it unique is the digital functionality. There is a lack of access to skeletal material and by bringing together this need with the digital expertise we have created something which will change teaching because it is the closest thing to studying actual bones and it is easily accessible.'

Dactyl is available at the Apple App Store for iPads and Dr Thompson has been impressed by the number of people downloading the app.

He said: 'Dactyl has only been available for a relatively short period of time but is already being widely downloaded. It shows the demand is there and I am confident that this product will make a significant difference to the quality of teaching and research within the field of forensic anthropology.'