By Chris Baraniuk

As my syringe presses against the skin and muscle surrounding a patient’s knee joint, I feel a brief resistance. A gentle increase in pressure, though, and the needle pops through, ready to inject the drug. But this isn’t a real patient or syringe – they’re both virtual.

I am taking part in a training simulation created by a London-based firm called FundamentalVR. It allows me to view my patient in virtual reality and perform knee surgery with a stylus that gives haptic feedback, so I can feel the different layers of tissue. The simulation is designed for surgeons who must learn how to properly inject a drug during surgery to provide post-operative pain relief.

“It stays exactly where you inject it, so you need to put it in the right places,” says FundamentalVR co-founder Richard Vincent. “That’s what this system teaches them to do.”

In the coming months, the simulation will be used in US hospitals by surgeons training to administer the drug during knee replacement surgery. This requires about 20 injections at six different stages.

The system runs on off-the-shelf equipment, which means it is more affordable than existing surgical simulators that require bespoke machines, such as those used to practise keyhole surgery. The company claims all the necessary hardware can be bought for less than £5000.

The simulated procedure is designed to work with a readily available high-end computer and an HTC Vive headset. Motors in the stylus exert increasing resistance when the virtual syringe pushes against skin, muscle and bone.

Seeing a syringe

The stylus doesn’t look or feel like a syringe outside of the simulation, but that soon changes when you’re immersed, says the company’s other co-founder Chris Scattergood. “We suddenly realised that when you’re in the VR, you might be holding it like a pen but you believe you’re holding a syringe – you’re seeing a syringe doing syringe stuff.”