Divergence-Based Medial Surfaces
Sylvain Bouix & Kaleem Siddiqi
School of Computer Science &
Center for Intelligent Machines
3480 University Street
Montreal, QC H3A 2A7, Canada
Medial surface based representations are of significant interest for a number of
applications in biomedicine, including object representation
[15,25], registration  and
segmentation . Such descriptions are also popular for
animating objects in graphics [26,18] and manipulating them
in computer-aided design. They provide a compact representation while preserving
the object's genus and retain sufficient local information to reconstruct (a
close approximation to) it. This facilitates a number of important tasks
including the quantification of the local width of a complex structure, e.g.,
the grey matter in the human brain, and the analysis of its topology, e.g., the
branching pattern of blood vessels in angiography images. Graph-based
abstractions of such data have also been proposed . Despite
their popularity, the stable numerical computation of medial surfaces remains a
challenging problem. Unfortunately, the classical difficulties associated with
computing their 2D analog, the Blum skeleton, are only exacerbated when a third
dimension is added.
The 2D skeleton of a closed set
is the locus of centers of
maximal open discs contained within the complement of the set . An
open disc is maximal if there exists no other open disc contained in the
complement of A that properly contains the disc.
The medial surface of a closed set
defined in an analogous fashion as the locus of centers of maximal
open spheres contained in the complement of the set. It is often
referred to as the 3D skeleton, though this term is misleading since
it is in fact comprised of a collection of 3D points, curves and
Whereas the above definition is quite general, in the current context
we shall assume that the closed set A is the bounding surface of a
volumetric object. Hence, this set will have two complementary medial
surfaces, one inside the volume and the other outside it. In most
cases we shall be referring to the former, though the development
applies to both.
Interest in the medial surface as a representation for a volumetric object stems
from a number of useful properties:
Hence, it provides a compact representation while
preserving the object's genus and making certain properties explicit,
such as its local width.
The following figure illustrate the medial surface of a cube.
- it is a thin set, i.e., it contains no interior points
- it is homotopic to the volume,
- it is invariant under Euclidean transformations of the volume (rotations and
- given the radius of the maximal inscribed sphere associated which each medial surface point, the volumetric object can be reconstructed exactly.
its medial surface
Approaches to computing skeletons and medial surfaces can be broadly organized
into three classes. First, methods based on thinning attempt to realize Blum's
grassfire formulation  by peeling away layers from an object, while
retaining special points [2,10,14]. It is
possible to define erosion rules in a lattice such that the topology
of the object is preserved. However, these methods are quite sensitive to
Euclidean transformations of the data and typically fail to localize skeletal or
medial surface points accurately. As a consequence, only a coarse approximation
to the object is usually reconstructed [14,4,10].
Second, it has been shown that under appropriate smoothness
conditions, the vertices of the Voronoi diagram of a set of boundary
points converges to the exact skeleton as the sampling rate
increases . This property has been exploited to
develop skeletonization algorithms in 2D , as well
as extensions to 3D [21,22]. The dual of the
Voronoi diagram, the Delaunay triangulation (or tetrahedralization in
3D) has also been used extensively. Here the skeleton is defined as
the locus of centers of the circumscribed spheres of each tetraheda
[8,15]. Both types of methods preserve topology and
accurately localize skeletal or medial surface points, provided that
the boundary is sampled densely. Unfortunately, however, the
techniques used to prune faces and edges which correspond to small
perturbations of the boundary are typically based on heuristics. In
practice, the results are not invariant under Euclidean
transformations and the optimization step, particularly in 3D, can
have a high computational complexity .
A third class of methods exploits the fact that the locus of skeletal or medial
surface points coincides with the singularities of a Euclidean distance
function to the boundary. These approaches attempt to detect local maxima of
the distance function, or the corresponding discontinuities in its
derivatives [1,11,9]. The numerical
detection of these singularities is itself a non-trivial problem; whereas it may
be possible to localize them, ensuring homotopy with the
original object is difficult.
In recent work we observed that the grassfire flow leads to a
hamilton-jacobi equation, which by nature is conservative in the
smooth regime of its underlying phase
space . Hence, we suggested that a
measurement of the net outward flux per unit volume of the gradient
vector field of the Euclidean distance function could be used to
associate locations where a conservation of energy principle was
violated with medial surface
points . Unfortunately, in practice, the
resulting medial surface was not guaranteed to preserve the topology
of the object, since the flux computation was a purely local
operation. The main contribution of the current paper is the
combination of the flux measurement with a homotopy preserving
thinning process applied in a cubic lattice. The method is robust and
accurate, has low computational complexity and is now guaranteed to
preserve topology. There are other promising recent approaches which
combine aspects of thinning, Voronoi diagrams and distance
functions [13,28,6,27]. In spirit, our
method is closest to that of 
1 but is grounded in
principles from physics.
For more details about this method please refer to the papers presented at ICCV'99 and ECCV'00
We illustrate the algorithm with volumes
segmented from MR and MRA images. In these simulations we have used
the D-Euclidean distance transform, which provides a close
approximation to the true Euclidean distance.
A brain ventricle
its medial surface
We are grateful to Allen Tannenbaum and Steve Zucker for
collaborations on the hamilton-jacobi formulation. Louis Collins,
Georges Le Goualher, Belinda Lee and Terry Peters kindly supplied the
medical data. This research was supported by CFI, FCAR and NSERC.
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Sylvain Bouix and Kaleem Siddiqi