Interactive 3D brains in PDF documents

A screenshot from Acrobat Reader. The example file is here.

Would it not be helpful to be able to navigate through tri-dimensional, surface-based representations of the brain when reading a paper, without having to download separate datasets, or using external software? Since 2004, with the release of the version 1.6 of the Portable Document Format (PDF), this has been possible. However, the means to generate the file were not easily available until about 2008, when Intel released of a set of libraries and tools. This still did not help much to improve popularity, as in-document rendering of complex 3D models requires a lot of memory and processing, making its use difficult in practice at the time. The fact that Acrobat Reader was a lot bloated did not help much either.

Now, almost eight years later, things have become easier for users who want to open these documents. Newer versions of Acrobat are much lighter, and capabilities of ordinary computers have increased. Yet, it seems the interest on this kind of visualisation have faded. The objective of this post is to show that it is remarkably simple to have interactive 3D objects in PDF documents, which can be used in any document published online, including theses, presentations, and papers: journals as PNAS and Journal of Neuroscience are at the forefront in accepting interactive manuscripts.

Requirements

  • U3D Tools: Make sure you have the IDTFConverter utility, from the U3D tools, available on SourceForge as part of the MathGL library. A direct link to version 1.4.4 is here; an alternative link, of a repackaged version of the same, is here. Compiling instructions for Linux and Mac are in the “readme” file. There are some dependencies that must be satisfied, and are described in the documentation. If you decide not to install the U3D tools, but only compile them, make sure the path of the executable is both in the $PATH and in the $LD_LIBRARY_PATH. This can be done with:
cd /path/to/the/directory/of/IDTFConverter
export PATH=${PATH}:$(pwd)
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=${LD_LIBRARY_PATH}:$(pwd)
  • The ply2idtf function: Make sure you have the latest version of the areal package, which contains the MATLAB/Octave function ply2idtf.m used below.
  • Certain LaTeX packages: The packages movie15 or media9, that allow embedding the 3D object into the PDF using LaTeX. Either will work. Below it is assumed the older, movie15 package, is used.

Step 1: Generate the PLY maps

Once you have a map of vertexwise cortical data that needs to be shown, follow the instructions from this earlier blog post that explains how to generate Stanford PLY files to display colour-coded vertexwise data. These PLY files will be used below.

Step 2: Convert the PLY to IDTF files

IDTF stands for Intermediate Data Text Format. As the name implies, it is a text, intermediate file, used as a step before the creation of the U3D files, the latter that are embedded into the PDF. Use the function ply2idtf for this:

ply2idtf(...
   {'lh.pial.thickness.avg.ply','LEFT', eye(4);...
    'rh.pial.thickness.avg.ply','RIGHT',eye(4)},...
    'thickness.idtf');

The first argument is a cell array with 3 columns, and as many rows as PLY files being added to the IDTF file. The first column contains the file name, the second the label (or node) that for that file, and the third an affine matrix that maps the coordinates from the PLY file to the world coordinate system of the (to be created) U3D. The second (last) argument to the command is the name of the output file.

Step 3: Convert the IDTF to U3D files

From a terminal window (not MATLAB or Octave), run:

IDTFConverter -input thickness.idtf -output thickness.u3d

Step 4: Configure default views

Here we use the older movie15 LaTeX package, and the same can be accomplished with the newer, media9 package. Various viewing options are configurable, all of which are described in the documentation. These options can be saved in a text file with extension .vws, and later supplied in the LaTeX document. An example is below.

VIEW=Both Hemispheres
  COO=0 -14 0,
  C2C=-0.75 0.20 0.65
  ROO=325
  AAC=30
  ROLL=-0.03
  BGCOLOR=.5 .5 .5
  RENDERMODE=Solid
  LIGHTS=CAD
  PART=LEFT
    VISIBLE=true
  END
  PART=RIGHT
    VISIBLE=true
  END
END
VIEW=Left Hemisphere
  COO=0 -14 0,
  C2C=-1 0 0
  ROO=325
  AAC=30
  ROLL=-0.03
  BGCOLOR=.5 .5 .5
  RENDERMODE=Solid
  LIGHTS=CAD
  PART=LEFT
    VISIBLE=true
  END
  PART=RIGHT
    VISIBLE=false
  END
END
VIEW=Right Hemisphere
  COO=0 -14 0,
  C2C=1 0 0
  ROO=325
  AAC=30
  ROLL=0.03
  BGCOLOR=.5 .5 .5
  RENDERMODE=Solid
  LIGHTS=CAD
  PART=LEFT
    VISIBLE=false
  END
  PART=RIGHT
    VISIBLE=true
  END
END

Step 5: Add the U3D to the LaTeX source

Interactive, 3D viewing is unfortunately not supported by most PDF readers. However, it is supported by the official Adobe Acrobat Reader since version 7.0, including the recent version DC. Thus, it is important to let the users/readers of the document know that they must open the file using a recent version of Acrobat. This can be done in the document itself, using a message placed with the option text of the \includemovie command of the movie15 package. A minimalistic LaTeX source is shown below (it can be downloaded here).

\documentclass{article}

% Relevant package:
\usepackage[3D]{movie15}

% pdfLaTeX and color links setup:
\usepackage{color}
\usepackage[pdftex]{hyperref}
\definecolor{colorlink}{rgb}{0, 0, .6}  % dark blue
\hypersetup{colorlinks=true,citecolor=colorlink,filecolor=colorlink,linkcolor=colorlink,urlcolor=colorlink}

\begin{document}
\title{Interactive 3D brains in PDF documents}
\author{}
\date{}
\maketitle

\begin{figure}[!h]
\begin{center}
\includemovie[
text=\fbox{\parbox[c][9cm][c]{9cm}{\centering {\footnotesize (Use \href{http://get.adobe.com/reader/}{Adobe Acrobat Reader 7.0+} \\to view the interactive content.)}}},
poster,label=Average,3Dviews2=pial.vws]{10cm}{10cm}{thickness.u3d}
\caption{An average 3D brain, showing colour-coded average thickness (for simplicity, colour scale not shown). Click to rotate. Right-click to for a menu with various options. Details at \href{http://brainder.org}{http://brainder.org}.}
\end{center}
\end{figure}

\end{document}

Step 6: Generate the PDF

For LaTeX, use pdfLaTeX as usual:

pdflatex document.tex

What you get

After generating the PDF, the result of this example is shown here (a screenshot is at the top). It is possible to rotate in any direction, zoom, pan, change views to predefined modes, and alternate between orthogonal and perspective projections. It’s also possible to change rendering modes (including transparency), and experiment with various lightning options.

In Acrobat Reader, by right-clicking, a menu with various useful options is presented. A toolbar (as shown in the top image) can also be enabled through the menu.

The same strategy works also with the Beamer class, such that interactive slides can be created and used in talks, and with XeTeX, allowing these with a richer variety of text fonts.

See also

  • Wikipedia has an article on U3D files.
  • Alexandre Gramfort has developed a set of tools that covers quite much the same as above. It’s freely available in Matlab FileExchange.
  • To display molecules interactively (including proteins), the steps are similar. Instructions for Jmol and Pymol are available.
  • Commercial products offering features that build on these resources are also available.

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