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Friday, 25 February, 2000, 13:43 GMT
Simulator promises safer surgery
Virtual scalpel lets trainees feel as well as see
Virtual scalpel lets trainees feel as well as see
Trainee surgeons of the future will be able to practise delicate operations before they ever touch a living patient.

A virtual reality system is under development that will allow trainee surgeons to see a high resolution 3D image of a human body, scaled to any dimension.

As they go through a procedure, they will feel the pressure of an instrument as it cuts through tissue. They will know when they hit a bone or make a wrong move.

The system is being developed by ReachIn Technologies, with collaboration from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Advanced Computational Systems Co-operative Research Centre (ACSys).

Members were amazed to feel a syringe pop through skin and vein and then to see it fill with blood

Duncan Stevenson, CSIRO Scientist
The Haptic Workbench is able to simulate the sense of touch so that the operator feels as well as sees the virtual object.

The workbench combines a mirrored 3D imaging system with a robotic arm.

Wearing 3D glasses the user sits at the workbench and takes hold of the instrument at the end of the robotic arm. This instrument can take the form of a pen, a tool, a scalpel or anything the system programs it to be.

Resistance is useful

Powerful, miniature motors that control the way the robotic arm responds to movement create resistance, which gives users the sensation that they are really touching an object or person.

"What makes the system really special is that the objects it displays can be felt and manipulated. It is this 'haptic' aspect that allows delicate and critical procedures to be realistically simulated.

Trainees' progress can be monitored
Trainees' progress can be monitored
"At a recent demonstration, RACS (Royal Australasian College of Surgeons) members were amazed to feel a syringe pop through skin and vein and then to see it fill with blood, because it was so true to life" says CSIRO scientist Duncan Stevenson.

During the operations, trainees' progress can be monitored, measuring the pressure and angle of incisions, tissue damage and other indicators with an accuracy not currently possible.

The technology has excited the RACS who are planning a virtual-surgery training centre.

"Surgeons will know exactly what aspects of surgery they need to work on," says Mr David Storey of the RACS. "This will be an enormous benefit."

Less time and money

"Surgeons are, of course, trained very well by current methods but the VR solution will be less expensive of time and resources and offer some revolutionary possibilities.

"By using actual patient data to generate the virtual image, a surgeon can rehearse a complex surgical procedure on a precise simulation of an individual patient," says Mr Storey.

"Experienced surgeons will be able to update their skills so new, life-saving surgical techniques may be introduced sooner and applied more widely.

"The arm is actually stronger than you are. So if the software says you can't do something - like push the needle through bone - there is simply no way you can force the arm to do it."

There is still plenty of work ahead for the research team before VR training of surgeons becomes routine.

"We need to acquire a huge amount of anatomical and physical data to generate the 3D body images," says Mr Stevenson. "Then the software systems for specific types of surgery need to be developed."

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11 Nov 99 | Health
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