Developing Rehabilitation Tools Using Virtual Technology

“Through the interface we have developed, we are able convert the movements of the client into the control of the virtual environment. In this case, pointing to a red or black dot on the screen,” Foreman says. “It is useful as an assessment tool because as we shift the virtual arm, we can determine and study how the client adapts to the shift. Now that we know the basic concept works, we are able to move it into an interactive, gaming environment.”“While trying to decide which laboratory to choose, I found myself drawn to the use of video games as therapy that Jack Engsberg, PhD, discussed in class one day. I am a bit of a gamer myself so I knew immediately that was the lab for me,” Anne Pioppo, OTD/S ’15, says. “Through a feasibility grant, we are currently developing the programming and the technology to create computer games that can be used for rehabilitation in stroke patients with spatial neglect.”

This project, led by principal investigator Alexandre Carter, MD, PhD, involves recreating the prism theory in a virtual environment using the Kinect gaming system. His grant provides a unique opportunity for Pioppo and Matt Foreman, BSME, a PhD student in Rehabilitation and Participation Science (RAPS), to collaborate with Dr. Carter, Jack Engsberg, PhD, and Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD, in developing a new tool for occupational therapists to use in clinical practice.

While Pioppo understands the technological aspects of the project, she also understands what the client needs are for rehabilitation purposes and is working with Foreman to make the games both functional and engaging before running trials.

“The trials will start by testing healthy control participants before testing a select population of stroke patients,” Pioppo says. “Once we have measured the outcomes of this feasibility study, hopefully the data will power a larger study that will one day put this technology in the hands of clinicians so clients can do rehabilitation at home.”

“As the technology gets better and prices come down, the development of virtual reality rehabilitation tools will only increase exponentially. It will be one more tool occupational therapists can use in their clinical toolbox,” Foreman says.

“It won’t be cost prohibitive because all clinicians would need is a laptop, a TV and a Kinect system. It’s very affordable.”

Both Pioppo and Foreman see this type of rehabilitation appealing to all populations and ages because it can be easily customized to fit an individual’s rehabilitation needs and interests.

“For example, if clients have mobility issues or concerns, clinicians can have them play the game in a chair so they are able to do the exercises. If they don’t like a particular game, clinicians can find one they do like to help keep them motivated,” Pioppo says. “They will be able to monitor the clients’ therapy, analyze the results and make adjustments as needed. It will allow clinicians to be more intuitive and responsive to clients’ rehabilitation needs. This technology has the potential to revolutionize outpatient services.”

Foreman, whose background is mechanical engineering, encourages other engineers to explore the opportunities rehabilitation science can offer.

“My PhD dissertation involves patients post-stroke, but the technology I am developing in the Human Performance Laboratory in the Program of Occupational Therapy is being used on other projects involving people with cerebral palsy, children with autism, and wheelchair propulsion. Engineers have a unique opportunity to customize a niche in rehabilitation science and I encourage them to explore all the possibilities occupational therapy can offer.”

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