Virtual Retinal Scanning goggles allow surgeons to check patient's data while operating

Kettering 27 February 2000The future of brain surgery just might be strapped around the plastic foam bust in an operating room at Kettering Memorial Hospital. The helmet-like device with square-framed goggles and reflective lenses is waiting to play its part in surgical interventions. These goggles project computer-generated images and data into the surgeon's eye. Called Virtual Retinal Scanning technology, it uses low-power laser beams to paint rows of pixels onto the retina, creating a high-resolution, full-motion image which appears to be an arm's length away.


Virtual Retinal Scanning is going to be very useful, according to neurosurgical specialist Tim Gillum, who has already worn the device during an operation. "Nobody else I know of is using this technology." The prototype, which is currently being tested by the hospital, is designed to allow surgeons and surgical assistants to operate without having to stop and look up at computer screens to read the patient's vital signs, tumour scans, and other data which could affect the operation.

Martin Satter, a physicist with the hospital's Wallace-Kettering Neuroscience Institute, stated that surgeons sometimes have to swivel their heads so often that it looks as if they are watching tennis. "We were looking for some new technology to kind of break through this problem", he commented. Satter checked the Internet and discovered the Web site of Microvision Inc., a Bothell, Washington-based company, that developed retinal-display products for the military.

Dr. Satter talked the company into developing goggles specifically for medical applications. Several members of the Congress helped obtain funding for the project through a co-operative agreement with the Air Force. Researchers at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base helped develop the technology in the 1980s, enabling pilots to fly with their heads up. "We really received the first of these devices which wasn't planned for military use", stated Dr. Satter.

United States Republican David Hobson assisted hospital officials in getting $4.9 million in federal money to help fund the project. The Ohio Republican has long been interested in transferring technology developed by the military to the private sector. Hobson explained that the goggles might eventually be of use to the Veterans Administration and federal health agencies. He added that the military might be inspired with some new ideas on how to apply the technology.

Steve Lake, president of the Dayton Regional Development Alliance, found it to be a good example of technology transfer. Surgeons wearing the goggles can concentrate on the surgery while images of critical data float right before their eyes. The images are transparent and do not obstruct the surgeon's view, as Dr. Satter explained. The goggles should not only reduce fatigue, caused by the constant head-swivelling, but also enable surgeons to respond faster to any problems.

Dr. Theodore Bernstein, who has worn the goggles for short periods during surgeries, found it a very interesting way of looking at things. "You can look through the display at the patient." However, not everyone is convinced of the value that such goggles can offer at a time when hospitals are under pressure to reduce costs. "It sounds as if you have got an interesting technology looking for a reason to exist", stated Dr. Joseph Piepmeier, who is a professor of neurosurgery at Yale University's medical school.

"The most useful tool a surgeon has is between his ears.", as Dr. Piepmeier believes, explaining that vital-sign data is not something he would normally look up to check "unless the roof was caving in." These goggles maybe could be helpful if they displayed the right information, as Dr. Piepmeier admitted, but the fact remains that "there is an enormous outpouring of technology that is being transferred to the operating room, and this is just a piece of that. It probably expands capabilities."

Microvision spokesman Matt Nichols said the goggle systems, depending on the quality of the computers and lasers included, could cost anywhere from $10.000 to more than $100.000 when they go on the market. "It's not just a technology looking for a home. What we're looking at is a marketplace coming to us saying we have a problem." Mr. Nichols also added that Baylor College of Medicine in Texas has agreed to test the new technology in heart and abdominal surgery.

Surgeons at Kettering are expected to continue testing the prototype helmet on selected surgeries over the next few months and let Microvision know how it can be improved. "We have not yet ironed out all the bugs", as Dr. Satter explained, adding that the helmet can get heavy after a while. The Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington has already earlier on designed an alternative system which is used in surgery as well. You can find out more about this mirror-like device in our article Virtual Retinal Display forms ideal solution for low vision disability and surgical application.

Leslie Versweyveld

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