VR could act as a digital physical therapist at home

"There is huge potential for consumer VR technologies to be used for both providing guidance to physiotherapy exercises, but also to make the exercises more interesting," says Mark Elliott. (Credit: Getty Images)

A combination of virtual reality technology and 3D motion capture could help physical therapy patients successfully complete their exercises at home, researchers report.

Currently prescribed physiotherapy often requires patients to complete regular exercises at home. Outside of the clinic, however, patients rarely receive any guidance other than a leaflet of sketches or static photographs to instruct them how to complete their exercises.

This leads to poor adherence, with patients becoming anxious about not doing exercises correctly or simply becoming bored because of the repetitiveness of the movements.

The avatar is wearing a black body suit and cap, jogging on what looks like an infinite plane
A screenshot of the avatar that patients would follow. (Credit: U. Warwick)

The advent of consumer virtual reality technology combined with 3D motion capture allows real movements to accurately translate onto an avatar that users can view in a virtual environment. Researchers are investigating whether this technology can provide guidance to physiotherapy patients via a virtual physiotherapist in the home to demonstrate the prescribed exercises.

To investigate whether people could accurately coordinate and follow the movements of an avatar in a virtual environment, researchers asked participants to step in time with an avatar viewed through a VR headset.

Unknown to the participants, the researchers subtly slowed down or sped up one of the avatar’s steps, such that the participants would have to correct their own stepping movement to stay in time. The researchers then measured the effect this correction had on their step timing and synchronization with the avatar.

“If participants were observed to correct their own stepping to stay in time with the avatar, we knew they were able to accurately follow the movements they were observing,” says lead author Omar Khan from Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick.

“We found that participants struggled to keep in time if only visual information was present. However, when we added realistic footstep sounds in addition to the visual information, the more realistic multisensory information allowed participants to accurately follow the avatar.”

“There is huge potential for consumer VR technologies to be used for both providing guidance to physiotherapy exercises, but also to make the exercises more interesting. This study has focused on the crucial question of how well people can follow a virtual guide,” says Mark Elliott, principal investigator of the project at WMG.

“Our work and digitally-enabled technological solution can underpin transformative health innovations to impact the field of physiotherapy, and have a direct benefit to patients’ rehabilitation,” says coauthor Theo Arvanitis, director of the Institute of Digital Healthcare.

“We now plan to investigate other types of movements working closely in partnership with physiotherapists, to establish the areas of physiotherapy that will benefit most from this technology.”

The paper appears in PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Warwick