Researchers wanted to test the use of video games joysticks that provide tactile or force feedback in physical rehabilitation.
Force feedback allows players to feel the rumble of a racecar hitting a virtual road or sense the weight of wielding an on-screen sword.
The team devised a series of experiments on 48 healthy test subjects to determine if force feedback delivered through a readily available, low-cost haptic gaming joystick would improve participants’ ability to complete on-screen tasks.
They created a 2D virtual map of a popular local attraction, New York City’s Bronx Zoo, and asked participants to use the joystick to move a cursor along a set path through the zoo. Short paragraphs of science trivia and information about the zoo popped up along the course, and subjects were asked to read this content when presented.
Participants were subjected to several types of force feedback and a variety of assessments of their performance were calculated. The joystick delivered converging and diverging forces, pushing the cursor either toward or away from the proscribed path.
“These conditions meant that subjects had to make continual adjustments to counter the force feedback and keep the cursor on track, which affected speed, smoothness, accuracy, and hand position,” says Maurizio Porfiri, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly).
“The actions and movements we elicited are similar to the motor exercises used to rehabilitate upper-limb paralysis,” adds Porfiri.
Perhaps one of the most significant findings was that the addition of science education elements helped keep participants interested and engaged in the activity.
“This has a particularly strong implication for rehabilitative therapies, as patients quickly grow bored of repetitive tasks,” says Oded Nov, associate professor of technology management and innovation. “If we can maintain engagement by incorporating some form of learning, there may be greater motivation to perform the tasks and reap the therapeutic benefits.”
The researchers say further studies are warranted, both to test the haptic device in patients with partially paralyzed upper limbs, and to test different types of learning content. The use of specially tuned affordable haptic devices may make it possible for patients to complete sophisticated rehabilitative tasks at home—and flex their mental muscles, too.
The National Science Foundation, the Italian Ministry of Health Department of Medical Devices and Drugs, and the Honours Center of Italian Universities supported the research. The findings by researchers from NYU-Poly and Sapienza University of Rome were published in PLOS ONE.