CT scans and MRIs are invaluable diagnostic tools, but they can be difficult to use on certain patients: trauma patients, for instance, who can’t be moved; newborn babies, who are more vulnerable to CT radiation and are unable to be still for an MRI.

Those sorts of challenges prompted Dr. Joshua Broder, an emergency physician and professor of surgery at Duke Health, to work on creating a device that uses a $10 microchip to impart 3D imaging abilities onto portable ultrasound machines.

Broder first got inspired in 2014, while playing with a Nintendo Wii gaming system with his son. Noting the console’s ability to accurately track the exact position of the controller, he wondered what would happen if that same type of controller was attached to an ultrasound probe. After a year of tinkering, Broder took sketches to Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, where he became part of a team that developed prototypes using 3D printing.

A traditional ultrasound probe provides two-dimensional images of what lies beneath the skin. A fingernail-sized microchip mounted via plastic holster onto the probe, however, can be used to register the probe’s orientation in much the same way as a Wii controller gets tracked. Using software, hundreds of individual anatomical slices can then be stitched together to create a seamless 3D image.

The members of the team, now listed as inventors on an international patent, believe that rural or developing areas without ready access to CT or MRI technology will offer some of the most promising uses for their device. Both Duke and Stanford are running clinical trials; support could allow the inventors to bring the technology to market in a couple of years.

"Ultrasound is such a beautiful technology because it's inexpensive, it's portable, and it's completely safe in every patient," Broder says. "In emergency medicine, we use ultrasound to look at every part of the body… we can augment 2-D machines and improve every one of those applications. Instead of looking through a keyhole to understand what's in the room, we can open a door and see everything in front of us."