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Doctors at a Toronto hospital are banking on video game technology to save time and prevent contamination in the operating room.

A team at Sunnybrook Hospital has started using the Xbox Kinect, a hands-free gaming console equipped with a motion sensor, to virtually manipulate key medical images during surgery.

The doctors use hand gestures to zoom in and out of the images or freeze a particular shot without leaving the operating table.

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Surgeons typically have to leave the sterile field around the patient to pull up images such as MRI or CT scans on a nearby computer.

They then have to go through a meticulous cleanup before returning to the area to make sure they don't bring in any bacteria that could harm the patient.

It can take up to 20 minutes to clean up each time a doctor consults an image, said Dr. Calvin Law, who helped integrate the technology into the operating room.

Those interruptions sometimes cause more than an hour's delay over the course of a surgery, said Law, a surgical oncologist with the hospital's gastrointestinal cancer team.

"It all adds up," he said. By eliminating those delays, the hospital could save enough time to operate on more patients, he said.

What's more, it would help surgeons stay focused and decrease the risk of contamination by keeping everyone within the sterile field, he said.

Surgeons can ask assistants outside the field to adjust images, but that's "always a little troublesome because of communication," Law said.

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He compares the Kinect technology to a car's global positioning system, because it allows the user to get oriented without stopping.

With better control over the images, surgeons can be more precise, Law said. For a cancer surgeon, that could mean saving more healthy tissue when removing a tumour, he said.

The idea to bring the Kinect into the operating room came from three engineers - Jamie Tremaine, Greg Brigley and Matt Strickland.

Mr. Strickland, who doubles as a general surgery resident at the University of Toronto, first spotted the challenges surgeons face in viewing images during surgery, according to Mr. Tremaine.

The Kinect seemed like a good solution, he said.

The console is a depth camera, meaning it sees in 3-D. It then creates a digital skeleton of the person captured on camera and tracks how the skeleton moves. Those motions are translated into commands.

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The engineers worked closely with surgeons at Sunnybrook to find command gestures that could be used in the operating room without compromising surgery procedures, Mr. Law said.

The system underwent extensive testing and has been used in surgery six times, Mr. Law said. There are plans to roll it out in other parts of the hospital.

So far, Sunnybrook is believed to be the only hospital using the Kinect, but Mr. Tremaine said he and his colleagues are hoping to change that.

They're also looking into ways to use the technology for physiotherapy.

Mr. Tremaine said Microsoft, which owns the Xbox Kinect, is happy to see its product put to different uses, "as long as they're not for video games."

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