LONDON, England (CNN) -- Virtual reality (VR) is not just giving us fun and games. Its convincing interfaces are also transforming medicine by creating environments that simulate the real world. Advances in interactive computer technology have been generating breakthroughs for doctors and patients, and now, vets and animals, too.
Student vets can practice their skills without risk to live animals.
In collaboration with VR experts at Virtalis, veterinary surgeon Sarah Baillie of the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, has developed an innovative model of a cow using haptic technology. Haptics uses touch perception and feedback so trainee vets can feel virtual 3D shapes, which resemble something real -- like the uterus or stomach of an animal.
The student's middle finger is connected to a mechanical arm attached to three motors, which are programmed to respond to the student's movements and offer back the same kind of resistance that would occur in a real-life procedure. Although the student's hand is actually suspended in space, the pressure and force of the mechanical arm gives trainee vets the impression they are feeling, for example, the reproductive organs of a cow.
"There's nothing there at all," Baillie says, "and if you click a button on the menu, the simulation can change from a cow that is seven weeks pregnant to a cow with a cyst. Or it can be a gut rather than a reproductive tract. Or it can become a horse with colic. It's much better than a physical model because then you would have to actually physically change it."
In the past, training has relied on students learning on real animals on a farm. The drawback of this method is that the trainer cannot see what the student is doing or advise on how much pressure to apply. With VR, the movement of a student's hand sends messages to a computer, which generates an image of what the student is doing on a monitor -- with a cow's organs visible. The instructor can see exactly what the student is doing and provide guidance. This style of training also removes animal welfare risks associated with student exercises.
"As a vet, I've been trying for years to teach my skills to students and it's really difficult," Baillie explained. "They can't copy me because they can't see what's going on, and I can't help them because I can't see what they are doing. I wanted to create something to help students know what it felt like inside a cow: the uterus, ovaries etc. With a simulator, I can take students up the first part of the learning curve and give them plenty of opportunities to practice before we get to the real thing."
Results with the 'haptic cow' have already proven successful. Baillie carried out tests on two groups of trainee vets at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. One group had their training supplemented with a simulator session and the other group received only traditional training. All the students were then set the task of locating the uterus when examining real cows for the first time and ultrasound was used to verify that the uterus had been identified correctly. The results showed that the performance of the simulator-trained students was significantly better than their counterparts. The 'haptic cow' has already been integrated into three veterinary schools in the UK and is currently being launched in the United States and beyond.
There are applications beyond cattle and horses, too. David Hendon is business development manager at Virtalis, the synthetic environment solutions company collaborating with Baillie. He says they are looking at similar opportunities with sheep, llamas and smaller domestic animals. "We're even looking at camels for the Middle East market," Hendon says.
Baillie says that the technology could also be used for external examinations. "Cats, for example, are not very tolerant," she explains. "They don't want more than one person feeling their abdomen. So I've got a student making a prototype model of the outside of a cat."
Baillie says student response is very positive -- eventually. "When most people first see the 'haptic cow', their reaction is disbelief," Baillie says, laughing. "They say 'you've got to be joking'. But it helps that it's in a fiberglass cow."
Virtalis has built the VR mechanics within a fiberglass model of a Friesian cow, complete with black and white patches, which helps add a bit of realism for incredulous students.
Virtual reality medical training is creating safe, predictable and reproducible settings, as well as offering more accurate ways to measure performance. Its influence looks set to grow, given its endless opportunities for improving practitioners' skills, its convenience and cost savings. It may well make a lot of cows happier, too. E-mail to a friend