Ope­ra­ting in vir­tu­al space

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

Read more blog artic­les here.

About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.