Virtual Reality (VR) is on its way to revolutionize medical training. Especially for surgeons, VR training offers the possibility to rehearse new procedures without the risk of hurting the patients.
As pilots practice in virtual simulators, surgeons can now perform virtual surgical procedures. One of the limiting factors of surgical virtual training lies in the need to feel force feedback. VR haptic gloves may soon change that.
Robot-assisted surgery’s wide adoption and minimally invasive surgery suffer from a lack of appropriate and intuitive surgical interfaces to control minimally invasive surgical tools. Especially for robotic surgery and minimally invasive surgery, haptic feedback is critical. Motion tracking and finger tracking are currently being studied, but the technology does not appear ready for real-world applications.
Medical training in VR is only as good as the haptic feedback
VR gloves improve the training of young surgeons before allowing them to perform surgeries in real life. VR haptic gloves allow improving the assessment of the anatomical structures but also to feel the texture.
Virtual objects and organs are only as realistic as the feelings experienced by the users. The reproduction of accurate digital objects and virtual worlds usable in medical training is highly dependent on the users’ feel.
Classification of haptic gloves
Mimicking the sense of touch is complex. It involves both proprioceptions to keep track of the movements and pressure sensors or mechanoreceptors to provide feedback on the texture being in contact with the hand and the fingers.
In a perfect world, haptic gloves should be light, comfortable to wear, and provide tactile and kinesthetic. Currently, they fall into two main categories:
- Traditional gloves: The actuators are directly into the fabric or outside of the glove. Some of the current challenges rely upon the need to use small enough actuators and strong enough fabric to offer good flexibility and resistance.
- Exoskeletons: Most companies working on this type of gloves use an articulated exoskeleton that connects to the fingers outside of the hand.
The company HaptX uses a different approach than combines both tactile and kinesthetic information. The device uses smart silicon-based textiles.
The microfluidic skin contains an array of pneumatic actuators and microfluidic air channels. Each haptic glove contains 130 actuators with the ability to provide a real sense of touch even though quite a rough one. To compare, each fingertip has more than 3,000 pressure receptors! Technology is still far from mimicking a real hand.
The magnetic sensors of the actuators capture the finger movements with sub-millimeter motion tracking accuracy. One of the limitations of these gloves is that by relying on microfluidic, they are not self-contained.
Combining technologies for surgical training
The company FundamentVR is one of the leading provider of immersive training technology for surgeons. They partnered with HaptX to develop a complete surgical training platform.
FundamentalVR defines itself as “Working at the intersection of immersive technology, haptics, and machine learning.” Using a patented Haptic Intelligence Engine, the company aims at enabling surgeons to practice safely and build muscle memory.
The combination of the two technologies was presented during the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons’ annual general meeting.
A challenging but promising road is in front of us
By exploring numerous technological avenues to develop haptic gloves, the road ahead is challenging but will undoubtedly be fascinating. To provide a sense of touch is a major challenge for medical training, but many companies are on their way to solve the equation.
Not only will the surgeons be able to train before performing a difficult surgical procedure, but the development of surgical robots also relies heavily on tactile feedbacks provided by haptic gloves.