Super surgeons: Proprio aims to bring computer vision and AI to the operating room

Proprio’s light field array puts computer vision in the hands of surgeons. (Proprio photo)

Seattle startup Proprio Vision wants to overhaul how surgeons see. At least, that’s the admittedly ambitious first step toward its larger, even more audacious goal of changing how medicine is delivered.

The company, which recently emerged from stealth mode with $7 million in funding, is starting with a system that captures real-time volumetric video using light field technology. To understand the technology, imagine a bunch of cameras that let you virtually change your point of view in real time.

Gabriel Jones. (Proprio photo)

“Light field gives us immersive, much more accurate, much richer data about the world around us than any other system could,” Proprio CEO Gabriel Jones said.

Proprio’s investors include Intel, HTC, The Venture Reality Fund, Presence Capital, L2 Ventures and Acequia Capital. The company is partnering on clinical research with Seattle Children’s and UW Medicine.

To understand why Proprio is aiming so high, it helps to know the founders. Before joining Proprio, Jones had the impossibly cool job of identifying technology that could change the world for Bill Gates’ private office.

That work led him to Samuel Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was developing a high-tech sports helmet for Vicis. Designed to reduce the risk of concussions, the flexible helmets are now being used by NFL and youth players, and the Seattle company has attracted investments from the likes of NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and other notable figures.

Jones and Browd joined Professor Joshua Smith, who leads the Sensor Systems research group at the University of Washington. Smith brought on computer vision PhD James Youngquist to head Proprio’s engineering efforts. Tech executive and investor Ken Denman, whose facial analysis company Emotient was acquired by Apple, also joined the team.

Together, they set out to invent totally new surgical technology.

Dr. Samuel Browd. (Proprio photo)

“As a neurosurgeon, it seemed that VR and computer vision had the potential to lead to a paradigm shift in operative technologies,” Browd told GeekWire via email. Many of the tools currently used in surgery are decades old, and Browd thinks new methods can improve outcomes.

Proprio’s light field platform works with existing medical imaging systems, such as MRIs and CT scans, Jones said. The technology that interprets the light field array is similar to a powerful video game engine.

The startup envisions a future where many operating room mainstays — such as surgical microscopes and fluoroscopy – are no longer necessary. And it wants to achieve that while improving the user experience for surgeons using VR and AR. The name Proprio is a play on “proprioception” and a nod to the idea that surgical technology should try to work alongside a surgeon’s own bodily awareness.

Those aspirations put it squarely in competition with Intuitive Surgical, the maker of da Vinci surgical robots.

Proprio’s light field technology has some immediate applications. Surgeons can teach others how they performed a surgery by playing back the light field video from different angles. They can also use the tech to plan surgeries and collaborate with remote colleagues.

Jones likened the technology to a 3D movie where you’re in control. “It’s hard to wrap your head around. But it means that where you are, or were, when something was captured no longer matters,” he said.

The Proprio team, pictured above, started with co-founders Dr. Samuel Browd, Gabriel Jones, Prof. Josh Smith, Jim Youngquist and Ken Denman. (Proprio photo)

The company started as a secretive operation at the University of Washington. Proprio has 10 employees, with plans to double in size this year and hire a number of augmented and virtual reality specialists. The startup is opening a workspace in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood.