Cornell College student, professor build virtual reality surgery simulator
Aim is to create no-harm-no-foul practice environment
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MOUNT VERNON — Brian Johns likes to compare the research and development in virtual reality he and his engineering student, Nicholas Bieno, conducted this summer to a batting cage.
In the batting cage, one can have just as many misses as hits, yet suffer no consequences. In the end, you get your score and seek to improve. It’s a form of practice that results in no harm and no foul.
This is a model Johns, an engineering professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, and Bieno, a rising senior at the small liberal arts college, looked to follow in developing a virtual reality surgery simulator.
“Typically, how surgeons learn this right now is in the operating room on real patients,” Johns said. “So they watch the surgeon do it a couple times and then the surgeon will guide them and then toward the end of their training and residency they do it all on their own.”
But what Johns and Bieno wanted to do was eliminate some of the risks, specifically those associated with the surgery to repair a type of hip fracture called an intertrochanteric fracture.
“The idea with this is to create kind of a “batting cage” if you want to use a baseball analogy for this procedure — a place where a person can get a lot of repetition and it may not be the most realistic but it is a lot of repetition and they can do it without the cost or risk involved with a real patient,” Johns said.
Over 10 weeks, Bieno — the student Johns selected for the project — spent roughly 400 hours learning about virtual reality and the medical procedure before designing a virtual reality operating room and calibrating it with pieces specific to the surgery that he also created.
For eight hours every day, Bieno worked on the specifics of the simulator from the basement of the West Science Center on the Cornell campus, asking for assistance from Johns when needed.
“I’ve never actually worked on creating models for an operating room or anything like this before,” Bieno said. “So doing a lot of this stuff has been a first-time experience for me.”
The project — completed as part of the Cornell Summer Research Institute — uses virtual reality to simulate visual elements of an operating room, integrate real world objects to replicate key surgical cues and ultimately minimize the risks and costs associated with current training methods.
Johns previously had worked on a different surgical simulator and said what he likes about virtual reality is that it opens up the capabilities to make the surgeries very realistic.
“It could be used for practice before you become a surgeon,” Johns said. “I think it could be used for surgeons to brush up on their technique and then also as a validation device — showing that this person is good enough to operate.
“That’s kind of the long-, long-term gain. We’re still in development now.”
In the future, Johns and Bieno hope to quantify the precision of the motion-tracking hardware, streamline calibration of the surgery while maintaining accuracy and gather feedback to further validate the simulator.
“The next step is to try and collaborate and get more input into this device,” Johns said. “What can we do to make it better?”
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