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Avatars of animals and humans

23 March 2021

Avatars of animals and humans

To date, the education and training of veterinarians, human doctors and researchers is still largely based on the use of live animals. Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented reality (AR) offer unlimited and standardized specimens for dissection and thereby have the potency to facilitate the transition to animal-free education. This project focuses on how effective the developed tools are in order to reach assigned learning goals. This will be explored in the curricular education setting and in the context of lifelong learning. By substituting animals and humans with dynamic holographic 3D models (Avatar models), we will be able to study and acquire anatomic, physiologic, pathologic knowledge of specific systems in a comparative way, while not being restrained by ethical concerns and unnecessary costs.


Avatar Rat

Figure 1. Avatar Rat


For centuries, animals have been playing a key role in understanding pathophysiology and in developing successful treatment of animal and human diseases. To this day, education and training of veterinarians, human doctors and researchers is still largely based on the use of live animals. In 2017, a total of 22.074 animals were used for teaching purposes in The Netherlands alone (NVWA, jaaroverzicht Dierproeven en proefdieren ‘Zo doende 2017’). However, with the implementation of the European Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific and teaching purposes, the moral and ethical framework has more radically shifted to replacement of laboratory animals. This Directive imposes clear requirements for the authorization and competences of staff who are involved in animal procedures. Animal free approaches in teaching and training for animal procedures have become essential. It has recently been shown that students with lower visual-spatial abilities have troubles learning 3D anatomy from 2D devices, but benefit greatly from studying in a true (digital) 3D environment (Bogomolova et al 2019). Avatars are functional 3D models offering a stereoscopic (from all angles) view of the object when visualized in VR or AR. They add essential information in e.g. allowing to dynamically interact with the 3D anatomy while the model is moving a joint. AR offers a highly realistic situated learning experience supportive of complex biomedical learning and transfer. Avatars are simulators.

Meaningful learning” strongly applies to simulators/avatars because our AR models will be:

  • active: interaction with the environment
  • constructive ‘learning by doing’: integrating new experiences within the existing knowledge,require goal-directed behavior;
  • authentic: use of real-world tasks with adapted complexity within a realistic environment
  • cooperative: communication and collaboration.

Goals and expected results

The goal is to expose holographic 3D dynamic human and animal models embedded in VR and AR for anatomy, pathology and simulations for surgery. “Dynamic” has two central functions: the models are dynamic (i.e. moving), and you can dynamically explore the model in full 3D (active learning).

Focus will be on anatomy and physiology (normal) and diseased organ systems of humans and animals. The “disease part” will focus on the locomotory system: a complex system made up of bones, musclescartilage, tendons, ligamentsjoints, intervertebral discs, and other connective tissue, together with blood vessels and nervous tissue. We will work on complex diseases such as on osteoarthritis (OA) and intervertebral disc degeneration (IVDD). We will bring in the classroom 3D dynamic holograms for general anatomy, physiology, and complex diseases in an authentic and animal-free setup.

  1. Choice of 3D models: we will buy commercial 3D models of mouse and rats, dog and horse;
  2. Annotated models: with descriptions  and morphologic definition of all necessary structures and layering;
  3. Translation of 3D models into Avatars: which allows users to see and interact with each other, and with the digital content, while being able to move around in the physical learning space
  4. Embedding Avatars: in our current education, in  anatomy, physiology and pathology courses.

Our goal is to use the avatars for graduate, postgraduate training and specific research training with animals not only within the veterinary faculty but in all faculties studying animal and human biology; the Hogeschool Utrecht and Leiden (zoology and laboratory animals courses ) and laboratory animal courses.

Further reading

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