Touch of reality for virtual medicine

11 March 2010

How to efficiently capture what it feels like to carry out a medical procedure – such as giving an injection – and then reproduce the sensation quickly and accurately in the virtual world has been the focus of recent work by researchers at Deakin University.

Robotics engineer James Mullins and his colleagues at Deakin’s Centre for Intelligent Systems Research used force feedback technology for the project, which was part of Dr Mullins’ PhD thesis.

“In its more basic forms, force feedback technology, or haptics, is what is used in arcade games to give people a sense of touch – feeling the forces when you go into the corner in a driving game for example,” Dr Mullins explained.

“Haptic technology is being used to add a realistic sense of touch to simulations of medical procedures, such as needle insertion. The goal is to make the simulation so close to the real thing that it can be used for training purposes. For example, medical students learning to give injections or make incisions on computer-generated ‘virtual’ patients,” he said.

Dr Mullins said he believed the technique developed at Deakin represented a new approach to adding touch to medical simulations.

“Our aim was to simplify the method of capturing the haptic data without compromising the quality of the simulated environment. We used a robot arm to inject both real and silicone substitute tissue and measured the forces needed to make the injections.

“We used that information to categorise what it actually feels like to inject a needle into soft tissue and then simulated pieces of ‘virtual’ tissue that embodied those particular characteristics.

“The goal is for the user to ‘virtually’ insert a needle into a piece of virtual soft tissue generated by a computer but actually experience what it feels like to inject into real tissue.”

Dr Mullins said it could eventually be possible to have a virtual tissue ‘library’, where users could download examples of different tissue types, created using haptic data, to train and practice on.

The addition of sense of touch to medical simulation, he believes, is a major development in haptic technology.

“In ten years or so I believe it will be possible for a student doctor or nurse to put on a headset and perhaps some gloves and train on a virtual patient that they can see, feel and hear.

“I think we can also expect that with further developments in haptic technology at some time in the future it will be possible for surgeons to practice a complicated procedure on a virtual patient or perhaps even operate on a real patient remotely.”

News facts
  • Haptic technology gives sense of touch to virtual medical procedures
  • Deakin research represents new approach
  • Eventually doctors and nurses could train on virtual patients

Media contact

Vanessa Barber
Deakin Media Relations
03 5227 1301; 0488 292 644

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11th March 2010