Teleportation ala Star Trek—beaming a person place to place—remains science fiction, but a Purdue University researcher is developing a system for surgeons that he believes could be the next best thing. The system involves expert surgeons guiding less experienced doctors during procedures in the operating room through a method called “augmented reality,” and it’s being designed especially for military doctors on the front lines. While an expert surgeon won’t materialize beside the operating table, the technology aims to recreate that science fiction scenario in a very real way.

“Think of [a mentor surgeon] being able to not only talk, but also physically be engaged in the task and help the surgeon with the practical task of surgery,” says Purdue Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering Dr. Juan Wachs. “It’s like the mentor is physically there, and this is what really excites us about the project.”

Called System for Telementoring with Augmented Reality (STAR), the technology uses a tablet with a transparent display positioned between the surgeon and the operating field—much like a small window. The surgeon’s view is unobstructed, but a specialist—who could be thousands of miles away—can also see the display remotely. Wachs says it provides an increased sense of “co-presence”; the expert surgeon can draw a line showing where to make an incision, choose from a list of virtual instruments or use icons for certain hand gestures that show how to perform specific surgical tasks.

“The [mentor] sees the operating field, the instruments and [surgeon’s] hands as if the display were not there,” says Wachs, “yet the operating field is enhanced with the mentor’s graphical annotations.”

Wachs says current systems that help surgeons receive expert guidance from an off-site mentor involve the use of a “telestrator,” a piece of equipment that displays video or images of the surgery overlaid with graphics, while an expert surgeon provides guidance. But Wachs says these systems require the surgeon to divert their attention away from the operating table, increasing the risk for distractions and costing critical time.

STAR’s development has received $750,000 in funding from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, but Wachs says the technology could also be used in rural hospitals where surgeons could be mentored by specialists at larger medical facilities.

“I see the operating room as one place where critical decisions are made, and the stakes are maybe the highest,” says Wachs. “Therefore, improving processes there is going to lead to a huge impact in terms of technology and research. Health care right now is not as effective as it should be; improvement can come from different places, and one of those is tele-assistance.”

Wachs believes, ultimately, the system could be combined with surgical robots, enabling specialists to even perform procedures remotely.

Being developed in collaboration with surgical experts at the Indiana University School of Medicine, STAR is also aiming to be a low-cost solution. Wachs says it uses off-the-shelf consumer electronics, such as standard tablets. He expects an entire system could be implemented for a few thousand dollars.

Researchers are testing STAR on patient simulators, and Wachs says preliminary results show it allows trainees to carry out a mentor’s instructions more accurately when compared to existing tele-mentoring systems. He believes STAR could be ready for use in rural hospitals in about one year, with military applications about two years more.

“We believe this technology could have great impact,” says Wachs. “The ability to provide assistance and expertise remotely to the front lines or in a rural region where it’s not currently available—we’re talking about the potential to save lives.” 

Wachs explains the concept of STAR creating “augmented reality.”

Wachs says the system would also be valuable for surgeons in rural settings.

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