A group of graduate engineering students have hacked Microsoft's new Kinect gaming technology for an inventive new purpose: surgical robotics.

Reported in The Daily of the University of Washington, a university newspaper, on January 18, the students are using the Kinect, an array of cameras and sensors that allow video-game users to control their Xbox 360s with their bodies, to give surgeons feedback when using instruments to perform robotic surgery.

"For robotics-assisted surgeries, the surgeon has no sense of touch right now," said Howard Chizeck, UW professor of electrical engineering in an interview with The Daily. "What we're doing is using that sense of touch to give information to the surgeon, like 'You don't want to go here.'"

Surgeons rely on robotic tools for minimally invasive surgeries, and they control the robots using devices similar to complex joysticks while observing images from tiny cameras attached to the surgical instruments.

"Engineers and scientists have been working for years to fix the inherent lack of touch sensitivity that goes along with using surgical robots," reports science and technology magazine Popular Science. A sense of touch is vital to a surgeon's craft - without it, you could do some damage to the body, such as nicking an artery or scraping a bone.

Electrical engineering graduate student Fredrik Ryden worked around this problem by writing code that allows Kinect to react to three-dimensional environments, and send spatial information about the environment back to the surgeon. If a surgical instrument hits a bone, the joystick can "feel" it.

"We could define basically a force field around, say, a liver," said Chizeck. "If the surgeon got too close, he would run into that force field and it would protect the object he didn't want to cut."

The students say they aim to transform low-cost software into something that could make surgical robotics reliable and practical enough so that doctors could perform operations remotely, stated The Daily. For instance, international doctors could perform on patients in rural areas, disaster relief areas, or even battle zones.

Before the Kinect robots can function in the real world, however, more adjustments need to be made, such as upgrading Kinect's low-resolution camera and scaling down the focus on its sensors.

Read more: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-01/turning-microsofts-150-kinect-50000-piece-surgical-equipment

Learn about other ways hackers are modifying Kinect: http://www.popsci.com/category/tags/kinect-hacks

Watch a video on the story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZJRgYJOE54