Paging Dr. Awesome: Kinect Hack Lets Surgeons Play With Robots

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Microsoft's Kinect may be a toy, but a new hack is giving it some serious skills: As an interface to the incredible robot surgeon da Vinci. It's accurate enough to sew sutures.

We've seen several innovative, beautiful and downright freaky Kinect hacks so far, but we've never seen one with quite such a fascinating hint at the future: A researcher has wired up Microsoft's gaming toy, via an appropriate bit of interim hacked code, to the input interface of the da Vinci multi-armed surgical robot. This device, you may remember, is increasingly entering service as a genuine remote-presence surgical tool--it's even been used to perform tricky prostate surgery. It's a serious piece of million-dollar machinery, and marrying it with a gaming toy seems odd when people's lives are potentially in play. So how does the hack work out?

The answer: Astonishingly well. Watch the video from Johns Hopkins CIRL's Nicolas Padoy's team to see.

The gesture-based controller even lets the operator insert a suture needle into a practice incision, and perform fine-motor movements like moving 6mm plastic rings between test spikes--emulating some of the ultra-precise tasks da Vinci's surgical manipulator arms carry out when they're actually inside a human body.

The trick in this hack was translating the three degrees of movement of the surgeon's arms to control the six degrees of freedom of the robot's own appendage. And then also dividing down the scale of the surgeon's movements so that large swings of the hands were used to perform minute movements at the tip of the robot hand.

That's not to say this is ER ready. For one thing, it's a bit clunky for snug operating areas. And holding your arms out like this for a four- or five-hour surgical procedure isn't really viable.

But the hack does show promise: da Vinci's usual input device is an ultra-precise and pretty complex manipulator control set--it's clever and accurate. But potentially the Kinect hack (leveraging Kinect's "natural user interface") could create a more precise connection between a surgeon's movements and the reaction of the surgical tools. And it's just an initial hack, performed with a cheap toy that more sophisticated hacks hacks and sensors could easily improve on. We've already seen the future of warfare made to look like a video game--is surgery the next frontier?

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