Tracking Movement

In Washington University’s Human Performance Laboratory, an artificial robotic horse stands quietly in the corner waiting to be used by clients. On computer screens, motion-activated video games are being transformed into rehabilitation therapies. In a nearby room, a specialized treadmill for wheelchairs has been built and is undergoing testing. The wide variety of research in the occupational therapy laboratory is all aimed at analyzing movement to gain a better understanding of how people with and without disabilities perform daily activities.

“The surface markers are dots that are placed on a person’s body, arms, and legs,” says Jack Engsberg, PhD, laboratory director. The data enables researchers to see performance differences before and after an intervention. For example, Bill Janes, OTD ‘11, MSCI, OTR/L, is using motion-capture to evaluate performance differences before and after nerve transplants to see if the procedure is effective in restoring movement. Engsberg combines motion capture vector images and virtual reality video games to create fun therapy programs for clients undergoing rehabilitation with disabilities resulting from cerebral palsy, stroke and autism as well as spinal cord or brain injuries.


Image of child client with surface markers 

A young client with student Emily Berkowitz, MSOT/S '13, and Dr. Tim Shurtleff.

“It’s like Kinect™ or Wii Fit™ games in that movement from the player creates movement in the game,” explains Engsberg. “For example, a patient can raise his arm to a certain height and trigger a flipper in a video pinball game. By changing the software that determines which movement makes a particular game work, we can tailor game-play to the type of activity needed for rehabilitation.” The research is still developing, but Engsberg has big plans.

“I envision that this could be used for global telerehabilitation, especially where occupational therapists are not available. People anywhere could download a computer rehabilitative game and do the therapy in their home while clinicians monitor their progress from afar.”

Innovative performance research such as this has caught the attention of therapists on the other side of the globe. This year, Joshua You, PhD, director of physical therapy at Yansei University in Korea, is serving as one of the laboratory’s research fellows. He is working with Tim Shurtleff, OTD ‘06, OTR/L, evaluating the benefits of hippotherapy. One of the questions is whether a real horse is necessary for optimal rehabilitative benefits and whether the environment plays a critical role. To answer that, a robotic horse is now in the laboratory.

Image of child and researcher with robotic horse

Dr. You and a client with the robotic horse.

“Horses are not available or are expensive in many areas, including Korea,” says Engsberg. “So we want to know if going to the barn and smelling and touching a horse makes a difference in rehabilitation outcomes when compared to a robotic horse. A lot of the projects we have under way now are very exciting and cutting edge. I actually love coming to work because I can see global implications in many of the things we do.”

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