Operating in virtual space

Image © BabyGiant Hollyberg

Virtual reality is used to train surgeons in a playful way in working with surgical robots.

Precise cuts, small wounds: when surgeons use the extended arms of surgical robots to perform minimally invasive surgery, i.e. the smallest incisions in tissue, they have possibly practised this beforehand by using the virtual reality training programme from the Potsdam-based animation studio Baby Giant Hollyberg.

The VR experts were commissioned by Avatera, a manufacturer of medical robots based in Jena, to create a digital environment with several levels to train surgeons on operating the robot. A training programme which is necessary before one can actually obtain a surgical license.

Medical robots are now in great demand, especially in surgery, where they are used for key operations in gynaecology and urology. Precise and careful work is an important guarantee for a successful operation. The extended arm in the form of the technical assistant takes over from the doctor’s famous “steady hand” .

Avatera’s model could have also originated from the set of a science fiction film. It is enthroned in the operating theatre with four large arms and is controlled by a computer. During the training programme, you sit at the controller and simultaneously lean with your body into the VR glasses. Baby Giant Hollyberg collaborated with another two other partner companies, who were responsible for the programming (ITK Engineering, Berlin) and the user interface (DesignLab, Weimar), on the digital simulation and developing the concept and visualisation.

A certain approach was important at the outset. The VR training programme had to introduce the users to basic functionalities and then work out the nuances that would later be so essential in the operating theatre.

“How can we succeed in designing a training course in such a way that it will be motivating?” was another important consideration. To this end, Baby Giant Hollyberg’s team installed high score lists, hurdles for the next level and reminder e-mails. The gamification elements keep the users interested and provide moments of success. A whole obstacle course of tasks has to be mastered within the twelve levels. Instead of handling blood vessels and nerve cords, the surgeons are now working in the digital simulation with Lego bricks being sorted into boxes, glass balls lifted out of bowls without being broken, or needles with thread that has to be fed around different surfaces. Little by little, they advance in a playful way toward those skills that are then used in the real operation. The surgeons get a feel for the right atmosphere because they can see a blurred image of the operating theatre in the background through the VR glasses.

However, the target group – and particularly the experienced, older surgeons – is not known for being typical gamer and game console fans. It was important to devise a programme for them that didn’t seem too pompous or distract from the essential, yet was simultaneously sufficiently challenging. The VR specialists from Babelsberg could draw on their many years of working in the world of entertainment to achieve this balance between entertainment, quality and visually appealing design. As an animation and virtual reality studio operating out of Potsdam-Babelsberg and Los Angeles, they actually come from the film industry. In the meantime, though, most of their work is being done for industrial clients who are supported with virtual reality, extended reality, augmented reality and mixed reality applications.

“Storytelling in the industrial sector is not about classic storytelling. It’s more about the message. What kind of message do we want to communicate, how do we talk internally with the employees, what do we want to communicate with the digital application? Much of it revolves around internal communication,” says Heiko Nemmert, CEO / Managing Partner and Project Manager.

In the case of the Avatera project, virtual reality is the chance here to help shape futuremedical technology. Once the robot is in use, it would theoretically even be possible for several people to join via the Internet and take a digital look into the inside of a human through their glasses. For example, a specialist from New York could be directly consulted to advise on treatment in a Munich operating theatre. This is where medicine and media technology open up more than just the third dimension.

By Christine Lentz

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