Virtual-reality technology helps med students & others simulate sense of touch (eSchool News article)

October 30, 2006

By hammersmith

[Source: eSchool News staff and wire service reports] — It’s hard to stitch closed a wound for the first time: It can take a few tries to stick the needle into the skin close enough to the injury. And feeling the skin tug when you draw out your line is disconcerting–even if you’re just manipulating a simulation on a computer screen, even if the “tug” is produced by a mechanical arm mimicking the springy resistance of flesh. The stitch job described here took place in virtual reality, performed on a simulator being developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Surgical instruments move in 3-D on a computer screen, mirroring the movements of a stylus attached to the mechanical arm. Novices can experience what it’s like to close a wound or use a scalpel, minus the risk of grave consequences.

Surgical simulators are commonly used in training already. But RPI professor Suvranu De said his prototype–in which the tactile qualities of organs are simulated in real time through mathematical equations and software–represents the next generation. With this technology, surgery could be practiced on home computers, he said. Down the line, De hopes researchers in haptics–the science of touch–also could use the technology to create a “palpable human,” a database of the physical characteristics of every bone, joint, and organ in our body.

The technology could have other uses, too. In 2003, eSchool News reported on a similar technology being developed by researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York. While that device was, like RPI’s, primarily envisioned as a tool for medical students, researchers said it also could be used by art professors to demonstrate virtually the touch and feel of certain fabrics or surfaces–or by sports coaches to help athletes emulate the perfect golf swing. Similar technology also is being used by video game enthusiasts to create reality-based playing experiences. (See story). Still, the most potential lies in medicine, researchers say. “The technology we’re using is far beyond what is out there,” said De, director of the Advanced Computational Research Lab at RPI. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]