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Surgeons gain implant expertise with virtual training

Bionic ears are an Australian invention, and Australia is where surgeons from all over the world come to train in the technically challenging procedure that provides the deaf with a sense of hearing through an implanted cochlear electronic device.

New technology has been developed at the University of Melbourne that allows visiting doctors to practise this procedure within a simulated virtual-reality system. It is complete with 3D goggles and surgical instruments including drills that provide realistic feedback of human tissue and bone.

Built into this immersive reality is a supervising surgeon in the form of software that provides real-time analysis and verbal corrections so that the visiting doctors can learn from their mistakes.

Professor James Bailey, at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Computing and Information Systems, is part of an interdisciplinary team responsible for developing this training platform. He leads the software engineering efforts, as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Project with Cochlear Ltd, with expertise also drawn from the university’s schools of medicine and education.

Professor Bailey says the particular challenge posed by the cochlear project was providing enough feedback to ensure surgeons could achieve a high level of expertise in the virtual learning environment.

That necessitated two extremely sophisticated forms of feedback. There is ‘haptic’ feedback (relating to the sense of touch) from the surgical equipment, used in conjunction with immersive simulation technology. Then there was the challenge of providing feedback in the form of the virtual supervising surgeon, which drew on Professor Bailey’s extensive expertise with data mining.

The software solution, however, goes even further. The team also studied the psychology of learning, assimilated what constitutes gold-standard expertise for cochlear implant surgery, studied user behaviour, and extensively trialled the system during its development.

“It was an interesting problem, with the added incentive that the solution has practical benefits in the real world,” says Professor Bailey.

More information: Professor James Bailey, +61 3 8344 1410

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