Introducing ‘Tip-Tap’ Waterloo’s new sci-fi tech for surgeons

A research team from Waterloo hopes its newest wearable tech could soon be helping surgeons in the operating room.

The “Tip-Tap” looks like something from the sci-fi movie Minority Report — metal tags worn directly on the hand, or in gloves, which let users operate a computer interface by touching together their finger and thumb. 

Researchers say, it could even be incorporated into the disposable gloves surgeons use, allowing them to access things like x-rays or planning diagrams in an operating room, without having to touch anything. 

It’s battery-free and works using modified radio frequency identification (RFID) tags — the same technology used to prevent shoplifting or for tracking down items in a warehouse. 

“Think of it like a base station, kind of like your wi-fi router,” says Dan Vogel, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, and the development team’s supervisor. “There’s a box that is basically reading and looking for these different tags that are in the space.”

And the materials are cheap — less than a dollar per tag, he said. 

The Tip-Tap can also be worn in gloves, including the disposable ones used in surgery. (University of Waterloo)

‘An elegant solution’

The Tip-Tap was developed by Keiko Katsuragawa, a research officer with the National Research Council and a team from UW. 

The researchers initially experimented with raised bumps and magnets to help users get a feel for the Tip-Tap. 

It turned out that wasn’t entirely necessary. 

“People are just very good at reliably putting their thumb and finger together in these different patterns,” said Vogel. “Humans, you know, we’re kind of incredible at controlling our body.” 

The team could have used motion-sensing technology to map out the most optimal part of the finger for use, Vogel said. Instead, they asked participants to wear latex gloves, placed ink blots on their thumbs and had them touch their thumbs and fingers together to see what positions worked best.

“It was quite an elegant solution,” said Vogel. “We just went to Michaels [craft store] and bought some ink pads. It was kind of wonderful to do that and get that kind of result.”

Potential for future use 

But whether or not it’s ever used in a real operating room is still to be determined. 

“I think it’s early days,” said Mehran Anvari, a professor of surgery at McMaster University and chair of the Institute for Surgical Invention and Innovation. 

Human-computer interface is an evolving field for surgical research, he said, and Tip-Tap could be a promising addition.

“I think the next step for this group will be to connect with a healthcare or surgical group to identify potential applications,” he said. “But there is no doubt that this has a potential role in a future operating space.”

You can see the Tip-Tap in action here: