Article - Issue 53, December 2012

INNOVATION WATCH - Creating the Haptic Cow

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Haptic animals are used at various stages of veterinary curricula. Here the trainee is palpating the cow’s uterus and is being directed to feel for the increased softness associated with pregnancy © Virtalis

Haptic animals are used at various stages of veterinary curricula. Here the trainee is palpating the cow’s uterus and is being directed to feel for the increased softness associated with pregnancy © Virtalis

A UK invention is not only boosting the expertise of future veterinarians but also promising to make things more comfortable for large farm animals. Trainees have been using the ‘Haptic Cow’ in vet schools and now it is finding its way into overseas markets as a global training tool.

The Haptic Cow is the brainchild of Professor Sarah Baillie, Chair in Veterinary Education at Bristol Veterinary School. After injury forced her to leave her practice, she requalified in computer science, and then used her veterinary knowledge to make the exploratory tool the subject of her PhD at the University of Glasgow.

She learned about haptic – or touch-feedback – technology during her computer studies – ‘haptic’ is a Greek word, relating to the sense of touch. After spending years trying to teach students how to palpate real cows’ organs in real farmyards in all sorts of challenging conditions, Professor Baillie saw the potential of a technology that could simulate the feel of 3D objects and therefore transfer the ‘cows’ into a classroom.

The virtual environment of the Haptic Cow simulates the bovine reproductive tract, including 3D models of the cervix, uterus and ovaries, with a range of fertility cases, pregnancies and some examples of pathology.

When they first see the cow, veterinary students find what seems to be an empty fibreglass shell, painted black and white to replicate a bovine rear-end. They put their hand through a hole and one of their fingers is attached to a thimble at the end of a specially-designed robotic arm. This in turn is connected to a computer, programmed to run the haptic device and deliver the right amount of force in response to the students’ touch.

The PHANTOM® haptics device, developed by the SensAble Group, uses touch-feedback to enable the students to ‘feel’ collision and reaction forces in the virtual environment, while on the tutor’s computer screen, the organs are displayed. A pregnant cow’s uterus, for example, is soft, while an infected uterus will have a firmer feel. As a result, the instructor can readily advise and direct the students’ movements ‘inside’ the animal – something clearly not feasible in real life – and provide real-time feedback.

Professor Sarah Baillie has gone on to win a number of awards for her pioneering work in veterinary education. She was the Times Higher Education’s ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year’ in 2009, and the following year not only won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ recognition from Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, but also became a National Teaching Fellow. In 2011 she became the first vet to be awarded a Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Educators.

The Haptic Cow and now the Haptic Horse (which simulates colic cases) are marketed through specialist virtual reality company, Virtalis, whose immersive VR technologies are employed in a number of industries including aerospace, defence, and medicine – see www.virtalis.com

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