Award-winning drilling in virtual teeth
13 January 2012
The dentist student leans in and starts drilling the tooth. At first it goes fine, but then she puts too much force into it – and the drill goes clean through the tooth and straight into the gum.
It sounds like the stuff of nightmare, but neither tooth, gum or patient exists. The jaw is a three-dimensional image on a screen, and the drilling device uses 'haptics' – a technology that feeds back a sense of touch and resistance in the virtual tooth.
The HapTEL (Haptics in Technology-Enhanced Learning) drilling simulator is developed by the TLRP Technology Enhanced Learning programme, part-funded by the ESRC. It was this week awarded the prestigious BETT award for 'innovation in ICT'.
The simulator makes it possible to practice drilling without depending on a dwindling supply of real, extracted teeth. Drilling on mannequins may look more real, but can't replicate the subtleties of working with teeth.
The haptic technology in the HapTel device enable the students to actually feel the difference between drilling in hard enamel and softer decayed tooth, teaching them how much pressure they should use when drilling. And with a virtual tooth they can perform the same operation over and over again, till they get it right.
Wearing 3D glasses, the students can see the jaw on the computer screen. With the help of a head-tracking camera and panels on the side of the glasses, the jaw on the screen can move relative to the position of the student’s head - making it possible to examine the teeth from different angles.
The developers have taken inspiration from computer games, basing the hub at the centre of the work station on similar components used in the gaming industry. As a nod to tradition and 'non-virtual' reality, the student operates the drill with a foot pedal from an old dental chair.
Twelve hapTEL work stations in a computer lab at King's College London are being used by 144 Year 1 students, as part of the undergraduate dental curriculum - as well as being trialled with selected Year 2 and postgraduate students.
The next step in the research project will be to expand the haptics technology to simulate other dental procedures, such as filling, cutting and needle-injections.
As well as January's BETT award, HapTEL received an accolade last year at the Medical Futures awards, with both the 'Special Award for the Best Educational Innovation' and 'Best Educational Innovation' in the Dental and Oral Health category.
"We've evaluated the hapTEL system in education with over 320 undergraduate and 30 postgraduate students over a two-year period, demonstrating its potential to greatly enhance clinical skills’ development and assessment, thereby having a significant impact on the global dental profession and consequently, the many patients that receive dental treatment," commented HapTEL team leader Professor Margaret Cox.