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Could an Xbox Kinect lead to a medical breakthrough?

KIRO Radio

When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox Kinect gaming system earlier this year, the company called it "a revolution, not just for your games."

That was music to Dr. Howard Chizeck's ears. He's not a gamer; rather a researcher at the University of Washington.

"We're interested in remote surgery, that might be used, say, in a disaster situation," said Chizeck.

It's an idea scientists have been working on for years. Ideally, first responders would be able to put a patient on a "smart stretcher," and a surgeon in a faraway place could operate using robotic tools, Chizeck said.

"One of the big problems is giving the surgeon a sense of touch, to sort of feel with the tools or do it," said Chizeck. "What we really want is a way to warn the surgeon when he or she is getting to close to something they don't want to cut."

Five months ago, scientists were trying to do that using pictures of the patient's organs taken before or during surgery. That was before the Kinect came along.

"Kinect was designed to let someone play a game, by tracking their hand motion and body motion, and we think that can be adapted for this kind of application."

Chizeck and a group of grad students at the University of Washington have demonstrated in principle that this is possible, he said, but actual surgery using Kinect-like technology is at least a few years off. Aside from the requisite regulatory approval process, Chizeck said there are still some issues to work through.

"Kinect can't see really close in. So there are some questions about how we can use lenses or modify it so that we can zoom in for close up work."

But according to Chizeck, researchers are leaps and bounds closer to being able to do delicate remote surgery than they were just a few months ago, thanks to the folks at Microsoft.

"They developed for something else, and it doesn't quite fit, but it's tantalizingly close," he said.

Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexSilverman

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