Published 23rd September 2019 at 9:32am

The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has adopted the latest technology to develop the ‘Digital Operating Theatre demonstrator’, which is set to advance patient care and improve patient safety during surgery.

The concept combines a virtual reality digital twin, projection mapping and smart tools, allowing the position of objects and clinicians to be accurately tracked in the theatre, with relevant information displayed digitally using screens, projections and augmented reality devices.

It is hoped the Digital Operating Theatre could help universities overcome the physical restraints of teaching medical students, as Sam Hyde, Project Engineer for the AMRC, explains: “Our use of virtual reality allows someone to view an operating theatre from any angle with no physical restraints. In a real surgery scenario, you can only have so many students in the room and they have to stand well back. With virtual reality, it means you don’t have any physical limitations.”

He adds: “You could call up an expert on the other side of the world to provide advice and help you when you are in the middle of a surgical procedure. Equally, you could have 100 people looking over the surgeon’s shoulder, or even in front, viewing the surgery in real time; it would be physically impossible in any other way.”

Nicholas Lee, Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The technology used is very innovative. I feel very strongly that the Digital Operating Theatre has the potential to improve the environment staff work within, advance the care we provide to our patients, aid teaching and training but, most importantly, has the potential to improve patient safety.”

The technology used by the AMRC is the same type as that developed for CGI movies. Retroreflective markers are placed on clinicians and objects then the camera tracking system tracks each of these points down to 0.2mm and updates the position 120 times a second. Everything in the Digital Operating Theatre demonstrator is replicated in the virtual reality on a one-to-one scale, with 100% accuracy, so we can position an avatar or surgical device in real time.

Currently, the Digital Operating Theatre demonstrator has a two-way voice communication system in place to allow those in the theatre to speak to others remotely. The next stage, which the AMRC team is working on, would allow the remote person to draw or place other visual representations which then can be projected in the theatre in real time. This person could point to something on the patient or bring up information or videos for the surgeon to see.

Head of the AMRC Design and Prototyping Group, Craig Roberts, said: “In the main, we have modified and augmented commercially available, off-the-shelf equipment. The clever bit is with the software development and what the team have done with existing technology. It is horizontal innovation.

“This is proof of concept development at the moment. We want companies in the healthcare sector in the UK and overseas to see what we are capable of creating, such as the Smart Surgical Instrument prototypes, and to work with us to develop these range of technologies further.”

The Smart Tools developed by the AMRC have a digital twin concept, creating a full metric of the instrument so the virtual reality can recognise precisely where it is, the angle it is at and how the clinician is using it.

Craig adds: “We have asked surgeons and clinicians what their requirements are and used their feedback to direct how we work. We have received very positive feedback so far.”

With the first phase of the Digital Operating Theatre demonstrator complete, further phases will now investigate refined tooling, track and trace technology, robotics and machine learning.

The project demonstrates the AMRC’s ability to innovate in an economical manner.  It has been funded through the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), of which the AMRC is a part, and has been delivered by a small team of engineers, in just 18 months.

For more details about the work of the AMRC, click here