A computerized virtual reality system that can show a three-dimensional model of a mouth as well as a transparent version in which tooth roots are visible would be valuable enough in dental training. If that system offered tactile sensation that would allow the user to feel a dental instrument, a cavity, or calculus, it could reduce or eliminate altogether the need to practice on patients or manikins.
Such a system has been developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago through a collaboration between the College of Dentistry and the College of Engineering.
The Dental Simulator allows students to fully experience what the instructor is demonstrating. It combines animation of the human mouth, projected larger-than-life on a screen or computer monitor, with a "haptic" device linked to a stylus to provide the sensations of touch that are so important in the practice of dentistry. Users also may put both hands directly into a projected image suspended in space to feel the teeth and gums as if the mouth were real.
"The haptic device allows one to touch what is displayed so that the student can feel exactly what the instructor is feeling�whether soft tissue alterations or a hard calculus deposit beneath the gum line," said Dr. Arnold D. Steinberg, Professor of Periodontics and one of the developers of the simulator.
"As a first step in the development of this system, we have focused on clinical periodontal procedures such as periodontal probing and the use of the periodontal explorer in the detection of subgingival calculus and a variety of other subgingival topgraphies," he continued. "A VR scaler has been developed which permits the user to feel calculus on the root surface and how the root feels when the calculus is removed properly."
In such a case, the simulator would be better than real life. "Normally such procedures are done 'in the blind' because the calculus is under the gums," Dr. Steinberg noted.
The faculty member can control the way things feel by degree, making what is on screen softer or stiffer, Dr. Steinberg explained. The degree of transparency also can be controlled. "You can make what's on screen as transparent or opaque as you want."
In addition, the angle of what is on screen can be changed at will "to show the proper orientation of the instrument," he said. The simulator also can be programmed to indicate if the practitioner is using excessive or insufficient pressure in performing a dental procedure.
Users wear 3-D glasses to make what is on screen look three-dimensional.
It is not only students who will benefit from the Dental Simulator, Dr. Steinberg noted. "This will be handy for continuing education," he said. "It will give the practicing professional the opportunity to try new things and further refine skills even after having experience with patients.
"In the future, this system will be developed for training in a variety of other areas of clinical dentistry and medicine," he said. "It could even be deployed for training purposes over the Internet."
Dr. James Drummond, Professor of Restorative Dentistry and Engineering in the College of Dentistry; Dr. Prashant Banerjee, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Computer Science in the College of Engineering; Christian Luciano, Visiting Scholar in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering; and Dr. Milos Zefran, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, worked together with Dr. Steinberg on the development of the Dental Simulator. Drs. Steinberg and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Professor, Periodontics, created an interactive CD-Rom to train students in instrument identification and use as an important first step in being able to use the simulator.
"The project has been strongly supported by the Dean of the College of Dentistry, Dr. Bruce Graham, for the past three years through student research assistantships in the College of Engineering and equipment purchases," Dr. Drummond said. "To continue the project and make it part of the curriculum we are actively soliciting alumni support to set an area to allow students to interact with this technology and speed up the learning curve for dental instruction."
Luciano, a PhD candidate in computer science, was awarded a $25,000 Advanced Simulation and Training Fellowship from the Link Foundation to support the project. He is the first student at an Illinois university to win the fellowship.
The Dental Simulator is to be used on a device developed by UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory called the PARIS (Personal Augmented Reality Immersive System), which is what allows users to both feel and view their virtual dental work in 3-D.