We’re all aware of the classic premise of virtual reality and the principle of experiencing a visual virtual world. But what about haptic technology? What does that mean to you? I had a unique opportunity to see this technology in action last week when I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at Bristol Veterinary School and met with Professor Sarah Baillie, Chair in Veterinary Education at the University and inventor of the famed ‘Haptic Cow.’
I first became aware of the Haptic Cow when I was an undergraduate at Bristol myself, and found the idea simply incredible: using a computer programmed device to realistically simulate the tactile experience of pregnancy diagnosing cows, something that some vet students get immediately whilst others struggle with perpetually. I place myself in the latter category. No matter how many cows had the (dis)pleasure of me rummaging away fruitlessly in their general pelvic region, I simply could not make the link between the random ‘mush’ that I was feeling – or rather, gradually not feeling, as the blood in my arms was systematically squeezed out – and the textbook picture of ovaries, follicles and the various forms of the bovine uterus. The problem was that there was no way for the lecturer to help other than to tell you what you should be feeling and where. Most of us simply ended up nodding knowingly and feigned a sudden reversal in our ignorance. The truth was that it was easier to pretend that we could feel what we were supposed to, thus hastening our exit from said cow’s rectal area, than to battle on. After all, the cows don’t thank a trier!
Enter the Haptic Cow. The idea is that you, the user, reaches into a fake cow (a black and white fibreglass shell with a specially designed robotic arm inside) and attach the end of the aforementioned arm to the end of your middle finger – the one you would use as a ‘friendly’ greeting to someone you didn’t much care for – via a small thimble-like attachment that fits snugly on the end of your digit. The magic then happens when the computer program is launched and the ‘model’ of the cow is run. On the screen you are able to see some simplified representations of various structures, such as ovaries, and this is matched by what you are able to ‘feel’ in the simulator. It’s a very bizarre sensation but the truth is that using this technology, which relies on the computer program outputting to three motors controlling the robotic arm in three planes, it is possible to haptically simulate all manner of structures, textures and body systems. I was given the chance to ‘PD’ a cow, diagnose an ovarian follicular cyst, and even experience the sensation of rectally examining a horse, something that is an important part of a colic investigation, yet which is notoriously risky to the horse, and subsequently to the vet’s professional indemnity cover! Using the Haptic simulator removes all of the risk associated with learning these techniques and after just one short session I would feel confident going out tomorrow and diagnosing colic or telling a farmer if their cow was in calf. That’s incredible considering I didn’t manage to achieve that in an entire year at vet school.
The potential for such sophisticated technology in dramatically improving the standard and effectiveness of medical training is huge, with the technology already having been applied to modelling a cat’s abdomen for training in abdominal palpation, to teaching human doctors the fine intracacies of prostate examination – the model human a@*e was hilarious! I can easily see haptics being combined with augmented reality, or other such technological advancements, in forming sophisticated surgical training programmes, dramatically advancing career development and patient care, in all species.
Professor Baillie’s career is as equally incredible as her invention, having graduated from Bristol vet school with an additional intercalated degree, and then spending a number of years in clinical mixed practice. A forced break from the physical rigours of being a vet in practice led Professor Baillie to complete a Master’s degree in computing, in spite of no prior experience of the field, and led to the start of her work with haptic technology and a subsequent PhD and the Haptic Cow. After time teaching at London Vet School, Professor Baillie is now back at her Alma Mater, Bristol, providing students with the incredible opportunity to train with her amazing inventions.