The goggles and hand controls look like a typical video game but this virtual reality system isn’t a plaything.

It’s Surgical Theater, the newest tool at Norton Children’s Hospital used by pediatric neurosurgeons preparing for surgery. The high tech system helps doctors better perform surgery and gives a young patient and their family a better way to understand their condition from the inside out.

Maybe another way to explain Surgical Theater is to think about the way pilots train to fly a new plane.

They spend hours on the ground in flight simulators perfecting both routine and rarely-used skills so that when they are miles above the earth they are overly prepared.

Similarly, the immersive 3D visuals of the Surgical Theater technology allow surgeons to plan for brain surgeries and practice procedures before they set foot in the operating room. In fact, the technology, which helps improve outcomes in the operating room, was created by an Israeli fighter pilot who understood the advantages of training in a simulator before taking flight.

“Having this new technology really helps us with surgical planning and execution, and allows us to better educate patients and families about their treatment options,” said Dr. Ian S. Mutchnick, a neurosurgeon with Norton Children’s Neurosurgery.

So how does it work?

Wearing virtual reality goggles, the same type worn by serious gamers, Dr. Thomas Moriarty, another pediatric neurosurgeon at Norton Children’s Hospital, virtually steps inside his patient’s brain and travels anywhere he needs to go.

“This technology is so vastly different than what we had to work with when I was a medical student,” said Moriarty. “State-of-the-art. Twenty years ago, it meant looking at black and white two-dimension scans on a couple of separate screens and half crossing your eyes to get an idea of what you were looking at.”

Today when he works with medical students using Surgical Theater, Moriarty can see in their faces when they “instantly get” what they are looking at.

“Using this tool is so much easier to understand that it used to be,” he said.

Norton Children’s Hospital is the first pediatric hospital in the region to offer this virtual reality medical imagining system. The technology was made possible through the Children’s Hospital Foundation with support from the community, WHAS Crusade for Children and Texas Roadhouse.

In the lab, 2D images from MRI, CAT and blood vessel scans are combined to create the 360-degree, color virtual reality model of the skull.

Now by simply turning their head, the surgeon can explore a patient’s anatomy and plan everything from the craniotomy, the surgical opening into the skull, to a clear surgical path and trajectory for the procedure. They can also take measurements, prepare for abnormalities and practice with different surgical tools so they know the best equipment to use for each individual case.