UW lab hacks Kinect for surgical robotics research

It was only natural that a new Kinect would end up in the University of Washington’s Biorobotics Laboratory. Kinect, a new add-on for the Microsoft Xbox 360, ditches the controller by detecting a person’s gestures and interpreting them as commands.

Since it came out in November, Kinect has been a favorite of researchers and hobbyists, who have hacked the system to explore other uses beyond video gaming.

Those in the UW lab came up with an intriguing idea: adding sensory feedback to see if the Kinect could be a training method for students learning to perform surgery.

The Biorobotics Lab’s research in telerobotic surgery aims to make it possible for surgeons to operate at a distance on patients in disaster areas, on battlefields or in other inaccessible places. The lab’s research also hopes to advance existing surgical robots.

“In telerobotic surgery, surgeons are basically unable to feel what they’re suturing or cutting,” says UW Electrical Engineering Professor Howard Chizeck. “We’d like to get that sense of feeling back.”

Experiments using the Kinect are a step toward that goal.

In a video recorded by UW graduate students Fredrik Ryden and Hawkeye King, the Kinect’s infrared camera points at a table where Ryden is seated. The upper right-hand corner shows King operating a stylus that gives force feedback, in the form of a push, when he meets an object in the virtual scene. The red dot shows where the stylus is positioned.

When the red dot moves over an object, the stylus feels the resistance, a field known as haptics. The video shows that King can not only tap solid objects, like the table, but can also feel a new object (in this case, a Styrofoam head placed on the table) and even shake Ryden’s hand in real time.

The UW team will explore the Kinect’s potential to improve surgical robotics by creating off-limits areas that would protect vital organs by building so-called “virtual fixtures” around body parts that should not be touched.