Hands-free operation

Voice-controlled medical devices could help to streamline operating theatres, following successful European trials of technology developed by Philips.



Researchers at the Dutch HQ of the global electronics giant claim that their Hands Free Interaction in the Hospital (HIH) system enables doctors to operate medical equipment while their hands are busy carrying out other procedures.



Mathias Lang, the senior scientist in charge of the project, said previous voice-activated medical applications required doctors to wear clip-on microphones or headsets. Such devices are distracting and cumbersome during lengthy medical procedures, Lang said.



The Philips system avoids this problem by arranging microphones around the room out of the doctors’ way. When someone in the vicinity of the microphone array speaks, each microphone detects the sound at a slightly different time, allowing the system to determine the precise location of the speaker.



Having established this, the control unit then uses algorithms developed for use in the mobile phone industry to filter out extraneous background noise and channel commands to medical equipment.



The system recently underwent a trial at a Swedish hospital, where surgeons used it to control the viewing options of a cardiovascular X-ray machine. A doctor would usually need an assistant to adjust the viewing options and flick through sets of images using a remote control, but the doctors directly controlled the X-ray machine when their hands were busy.



Lang said the system saved time during operations and allowed for more efficient use of staff. He added that unlike in previous trials of voice-activated medical devices, the surgeons enjoyed using the system and the novelty didn’t wear off. Further tests will take place next month at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and in December at the Catharina Ziekenhuis hospital in Eindhoven, Holland.


Though suited to large equipment such as X-ray machines, Lang admitted it will be some time before specialist voice-operated devices, such as scalpels and drills, appear in operating theatres. Philips is aiming the technology mainly at medical applications, but it could be helpful wherever hands-free operation is needed. The firm has been talking to automotive companies, for which voice control is a major research focus.