Body of Matter (2022)

Body of Matter (2022)

Isabella Robb

Physical Representations of Anatomical Data

People are opaque, our internal workings a matrix of cellular matter that varies from liquid to soft tissue to hard bone. While these can be felt, they remain unseen. Being able to observe what lies beneath the skin has developed over time, from dissection and drawing, to 2D x-rays, and now to MRI and CT scans as 3D visualisations revealing biological function. Using additive manufacturing, it is now possible to reproduce accurately an individual’s personal anatomy from this data. While useful in analysis and pre-operative planning within the medical realm, research is limited regarding how personalised objects containing that data may benefit an individual outside of a clinical setting.

With her thesis Izzy wanted to explore not only the making of medical models for diagnostic purposes, but also explore how this medical data can become a meaningful object, remembering a personal journey or a close contact. Through creating an object biological data is transformed into something new. Body matter is transformed into forms which explore visualisation methods, aesthetic objects, and personalised products.

As our lives become and more digitized, we yearn for physical objects that convey deep meaningful connections. But when it comes to highly personalized data – like medical scans – the options how to display them in a meaningful and respectful way are limited, due to the nature of the raw data itself and lack of creative options.  This research explores how emerging technologies can transform medical data from 2-dimensional visualisations into highly intricate and tactile 3D-printed objects. By migrating scientific data through a bitmap printing process, a range of novel outcomes are presented. For this research three data sets were used and turned into three distinct and personal objects: prescription glasses, ballpoint pen and forks respectively. The feedback to these objects highlighted the importance of the personal connection and the desire to express a particular event/ medical journey.

Izzy has always been intrigued by the unexpected, and by possibilities offered through form generation. She was fortunate to have opportunities using both FDM and multi-material 3D-printing during her undergraduate degree at Victoria University of Wellington. This undergraduate work led to being awarded a summer research scholarship, working with the Department of Anaesthesia and Pain Management at Wellington Hospital, creating 3D-printed training surgical swatches. This summer scholarship taught her about the possibilities of 3D-printing within the medical context, along with methods of digitally processing medical imaging data.

This research investigated the transformation of anatomical data into physical objects through an iterative design process. It explored how intimate and hidden cellular matter can be given a new form and meaning through 3D-printing. Models were produced in both anatomically accurate and established forms to explore how anatomy is viewed and physically understood. The intention was twofold, firstly aiming to assist in a process of personal discovery to gain a better understanding of one’s own anatomy for patient consent, and secondly to imbue products with a new and more personal sense of identity and meaning.

Design is a catalyst for innovation and this research only brushes the surface. Novel technologies encourage exploration of new applications within society. This research explores the importance of challenging conventions, with the reinterpretation of established products, such as the Bic pen and Porsche Design glasses, by applying a new material aesthetic. The migration of anatomical data into defined forms influences the future of products and body data can now be viewed as both an aesthetic and assistive medium. From this emerges a new form of customisation and with it a new digitally generated bio-based aesthetic, that connects back to the variegation of ‘natural’ materials and the value we deem them to have.

This research portfolio was supported through funding by MedTechCoRE and in kind by WellOral and Capital & Coast District Health Board.

Materials and Processes


Houdini, 3D slicer, Rhinoceros 3D, Blender, Autodesk Meshmixer and Netfabb, Adobe Photoshop, GrabCAD Print, GrabCAD Voxel Print Utility


Stratasys J850 printer

Project level

Master of Design Innovation (MDI) thesis, primary supervisor Bernard Guy and secondary Simon Fraser