A new eye-tracking technology that can easily tell where the doctor is looking may be used in creating robot assistants that can operate on patients under the direction of a surgeon's gaze.
The new device has been integrated into a da Vinci surgical robot - a tool that allows surgeons to perform keyhole procedures by mimicking their hand movements.
But, researchers from the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London, said that surgeons often need more than two hands when they have to position additional instruments such as endoscopes or lasers.
However, the new device uses the surgeon's gaze to direct these tools. It shines an infrared LED on each eye, which make the cameras to track the relative movement of the pupil and the "glint" of reflected light on the cornea for calculating where the surgeon is looking.
The robots will then use this information to move the instrument to a new position on the patient.
As the surgeon will only prefer using the feature at only specific times in the procedure, a foot pedal is given for activating the device.
Team member Guang-Zhong Yang claims the gaze-tracker device is accurate to within 3 millimetres, although they are hoping to improve on this.
He said that it should provide more instant and precise control than a human assistant.
"It could be useful in cardiovascular or gastro-intestinal surgery, which require lots of complex manoeuvres," New Scientist quoted him, as saying.
The results of the study will be presented at the IROS 2008 conference in Nice, France.