We've seen the Xbox 360 Kinect control robots before, but never robots with tasks this important. A group of graduate engineering students at the University of Washington are using Microsoft's device to guide the actions of surgical robots.

Scientists and engineers have been working for years to integrate gaming technology into the human-controlled robots that are being used increasingly to perform delicate operations too small for human hands.

The problem with surgical robots is that while they allow for extreme precision, there is no tactile sensation for the doctor operating the tiny robotic arms. If a scalpel brushes against an exposed vein, for instance, the robot operator does not feel the subtle bump.


"For robotics-assisted surgeries, the surgeon has no sense of touch right now," said Howard Chizeck, UW professor of electrical engineering. "What we're doing is using that sense of touch to give information to the surgeon, like ‘You don't want to go here.'"

Engineers have been working to integrate gaming's force feedback technology into the robots, translating those tiny bumps into force felt on the operator's end.

The University of Washington engineering students have an even better idea.


Electrical engineering graduate student Fredrik Ryden has developed software that will allow Microsoft's Kinect to create three dimensional maps of a patient's body.

In order for force feedback technology to work properly, it needs some sort of frame of reference to tell it when the robot is brushing against a bone or in danger of nicking a patient's pancreas. Originally the group planned to us CT scans to provide the data, but soon the group got the idea to use a depth camera to provide a more precise picture by measuring infrared light reflected off of the surface. In December they decided to use Microsoft's Kinect, for obvious reasons.

"It's really good for demonstration because it's so low-cost, and because it's really accessible," Ryden, who designed the system during one weekend, said. "You already have drivers, and you can just go in there and grab the data. It's really easy to do fast prototyping because Microsoft's already built everything."

The team says that without Kinect the project would have cost approximately $50,000.

Not only does the Kinect data allow for precision force feedback in robot surgeons, the operators can define entire regions of the operating area off limits, effectively placing a virtual force field around regions that the robot's tools can't pass.

There are still some hurdles to overcome. The team needs to integrate the technology with a robotics package, increase the video resolution, and scale down the sensors to a size appropriate for surgical use. Still, it's a promising start for a potentially life-saving technology built from a device meant to make us act silly in front of our television set.

UW students adapt gaming hardware for robotic surgery [The Daily of the University of Washington]