Robotic Nurse 'Gesture Recognition'

Article Date: 07 Feb 2011 - 0:00 PST
 
  
Surgeons of the future might use a system that recognizes hand gestures as commands to control a robotic scrub nurse or tell a computer to display medical images of the patient during an operation.

Both the hand-gesture recognition and robotic nurse innovations might help to reduce the length of surgeries and the potential for infection, said Juan Pablo Wachs, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University.

The "vision-based hand gesture recognition" technology could have other applications, including the coordination of emergency response activities during disasters.

"It's a concept Tom Cruise demonstrated vividly in the film 'Minority Report,'" Wachs said.

Surgeons routinely need to review medical images and records during surgery, but stepping away from the operating table and touching a keyboard and mouse can delay the surgery and increase the risk of spreading infection-causing bacteria.

The new approach is a system that uses a camera and specialized algorithms to recognize hand gestures as commands to instruct a computer or robot.

At the same time, a robotic scrub nurse represents a potential new tool that might improve operating-room efficiency, Wachs said.

Findings from the research will be detailed in a paper appearing in the February issue of Communications of the ACM, the flagship publication of the Association for Computing Machinery. The paper, featured on the journal's cover, was written by researchers at Purdue, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

Research into hand-gesture recognition began several years ago in work led by the Washington Hospital Center and Ben-Gurion University, where Wachs was a research fellow and doctoral student, respectively.

He is now working to extend the system's capabilities in research with Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences.

"One challenge will be to develop the proper shapes of hand poses and the proper hand trajectory movements to reflect and express certain medical functions," Wachs said. "You want to use intuitive and natural gestures for the surgeon, to express medical image navigation activities, but you also need to consider cultural and physical differences between surgeons. They may have different preferences regarding what gestures they may want to use."

Other challenges include providing computers with the ability to understand the context in which gestures are made and to discriminate between intended gestures versus unintended gestures.

"Say the surgeon starts talking to another person in the operating room and makes conversational gestures," Wachs said. "You don't want the robot handing the surgeon a hemostat."

A scrub nurse assists the surgeon and hands the proper surgical instruments to the doctor when needed.