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A technician can use the probe as usual, or add 3-D images by simply snapping on a plastic attachment containing the location-sensing microchip. (Credit: Duke Health)

Technology that keeps track of how your smartphone is oriented can now give $50,000 ultrasound machines many of the 3D imaging abilities of their $250,000 counterparts — for the cost of a $10 microchip.

The key to the technology is a fingernail-sized microchip that mounts onto a traditional ultrasound probe — the plastic scanner that slides over gel-slathered skin to relay two-dimensional images of what lies beneath. The chip registers the probe’s orientation, then uses software to seamlessly stitch hundreds of individual slices of the anatomy together in three dimensions.

The result is an instant 3D model similar in quality to a CT scan or MRI. The prototypes start with a streamlined plastic holster that slips onto the ultrasound probe. A technician can use the probe as usual, or add 3D images by simply snapping on a plastic attachment containing the location-sensing microchip. To get the best 3D images, the team also devised a plastic stand to help steady the probe as the user hones in on one part of the anatomy.

The microchip and the ultrasound probe connect via computer cables to a laptop programmed for the device. As the user scans, the computer program whips up a 3D model in seconds. The creators believe some of the most promising uses could be when CT scans or MRIs are not available, in rural or developing areas, or when they are too risky.

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