Joystick with attitude to train new surgeons

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Diane Luckow



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As one of Canada's top-ranked comprehensive universities, SFU has no medical school. Yet 130 faculty and their students, representing departments ranging from gerontology to molecular biology and biochemistry, are involved in ground-breaking medical and health-related research. “We want to depart from the conventional clinical models of health research and education,”says President Michael Stevenson. “By drawing on our interdisciplinary strengths, there are very real opportunities in areas such as health promotion and population health to explore.” These stories showcase SFU's prowess in the medical and health research field.


Shahram Payandeh watches the computer screen as he manipulates a joystick and laparoscopic instruments to slice through a simulated organ.

Surgeons in training at the centre for surgical education at Vancouver General hospital will soon be suturing virtual wounds and making incisions in virtual organs using leading edge technology created at Simon Fraser University.

For the past seven years, professors and students in SFU's computing science, engineering science and kinesiology departments have been collaborating on a project to create graphical software and hardware that can help surgeons learn how to do laparoscopic surgery in a virtual environment rather than on patients or live animals.

Laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery uses tiny cameras and long-stemmed instruments to perform exacting surgery inside the body while the surgeon views his progress on a video screen. The new software and hardware will teach surgeons to coordinate their hand movements and the remote instruments while watching a video screen, which is not how they're accustomed to operating, says Shahram Payandeh, professor of engineering science.

“Their eyes, which is the camera, are looking at the operating site from another angle,” he explains. “Everything that is on the right is now on the left and flipped over.”

A joystick with attitude, developed by engineering science faculty and students, even provides surgeons with the feel of the needle pulling on tissue or the knife blade cutting through tissue as they use the joystick to manipulate the instruments inside the body.

Funded by the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems, a government-sponsored centre of excellence, the project involved significant technical challenges, says Payandeh. “We had to engineer the joystick device for controlling the instruments, create the interface with the computer, develop the graphical haptic feedback renderings (technology which mimics sensory output, such as the resistance of a knife slicing through flesh) and establish lessons for the training modules.”

Payandeh says SFU's research and development for the haptic feedback graphics is world-leading. For example, the software developed for the cutting tasks, in which a knife cuts through a simulated organ, opening up a path, is at the forefront of software development.

Now, he says, they must develop the training context for this task, such as making an artery bleed beneath the cut if the surgeon cuts too deeply.

Surgeons at the VGH surgical education centre will soon be using and assessing this new virtual environment so SFU can move toward commercializing the technology, which already has a provisional patent.
Payandeh and his associates, computing science professor John Dill and kinesiology professor Christine Mackenzie, dream of the day when their technology will eventually be used to map out a virtual environment based on data taken from a patient's magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound ,so that doctors could practice a procedure before they operate.

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