THERE are 37 million blind people worldwide. Ten million of these are in Africa alone and suffer from cataract blindness.
The good news is that this is preventable - a cataract operation is the most common operation performed worldwide. The bad news is that there are not enough trained surgeons on the ground to perform these operations and this is where a talented team of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) students comes in.
The Trinity Sight team, finalist of Microsoft's Imagine Cup global student technology competition, has devised an inexpensive and innovative technology solution to the training shortage using off-the-shelf products, including remotes from the Nintendo Wii games console and a laptop.
The innovation lies in the fact that Trinity Sight is using affordable technology to tackle a global health issue by turning the functionality of computer games software and hardware on its head to create a training simulator for student surgeons in developing countries.
The current solution for virtual surgical training - the EYESi simulator - costs €100,000. The Simulator for Eye Surgical Training from Trinity Sight costs under €500, and if the clinic already has a decent computer it will only cost the price of two Wiimotes [Wii Remote].
Dr Kate Coleman, eye surgeon and founder of the Royal College of Surgeons' non-profit organisation Right to Sight, is an advocate for fighting preventable blindness worldwide and is a consultant to the Trinity Sight team.
"About three years ago, I realised as an eye surgeon that no matter how much money the world threw at the blindness problem it couldn't solve it unless there were trained-up surgeons," says Dr Coleman.
While the money was there due to many large organisations willing to help, nobody was really aware of the fundamental bottleneck: the shortage of trained surgeons.
"In Africa, due to the logistics, where there are surgeons the average one is performing 243 operations per year while in India the average surgeon is carrying out 210 operations a morning!" she adds.
The first few years of Right to Sight have involved building up capacity in hospitals so, coming to TCD, Dr Coleman had the idea that the Imagine Cup team would be able to help with this.
"Trinity Sight is currently working with Dr Princeton Lee at the Royal College of Surgeons to compare its Right to Sight PC simulator with the EYESi platform and demonstrate the parallels in skills transfer," she says.
A training simulator built on Microsoft games software and using two Wiimotes, will help student surgeons to practise the various surgical techniques used during a cataract operation by performing virtual surgery on a computer-generated eye.
"The procedure of a cataract operation is broken into discrete steps that are modelled in the training simulator: it takes key parts and measures the movement and performance of the trainee surgeon," explains team member Eoin O'Brien.
This data can be then be shared online with tutors and the simulator will benefit student surgeons in terms of practice: complications during eye surgery decrease over the first 100 surgeries.
The training simulator will help cut down on this, so while it doesn't replace training, it does serve as useful practice in between visits from the visiting eye surgeon, thus decreasing the time it takes to train up a qualified surgeon.
There are some more added benefits to using the simulator: an eye surgeon cannot directly see his or her hands while carrying out an operation for obvious reasons of scale and must learn the hand-eye co-ordination skills necessary to perform such a delicate procedure with accuracy.
The hand-eye co-ordination needed to use the Wiimotes in conjunction with the computer screen models this, while also serving as an effective screening method to find ideal candidates before putting them through expensive and time-consuming training.
As Irish finalists of the Imagine Cup, Trinity Sight will be heading, along with Microsoft Ireland's academic engagement manager, Liam Cronin, to the world finals in Cairo this weekend.
"Microsoft Imagine Cup has come a long way since it first launched seven years ago. In 2003, we had 1,000 competitors from 15 countries - our first winner now has his own company with over 20 employees. Fast forward to 2009 and the Imagine Cup has attracted over 300,000 students from 100 countries," says Cronin.
"We have no doubt that Trinity Sight is in with an excellent chance of bringing home a prize," he explains.
The next step for Trinity Sight is an exciting one: already the team is looking at Microsoft's next-generation gaming technology - Project Natal - to develop a more advanced training simulator.
The built-in camera and sensors in Project Natal will use the Xbox 360 games console to pick up real-life movement, which could cut out the need for a remote such as the Wii.
"A trainee eye surgeon could use an actual scalpel to practice on the simulator and the camera would pick up the movements and translate them on screen," adds O'Brien.
© Silicon Republic Ltd