Ville Lahtinen

By Ville Lahtinen

This is a story about VR Rehab. The story started last September in Demola, when a team of six students from different fields came together to work on a project called “Rehabilitation Using Virtual Reality”. During the course of the next four months this team explored the possibilities that VR brings to the world of rehabilitation.

Our team consisted of two coders, one business specialist, two health professionals, and me, the UX design / branding guy. The device Vincit gave us, Samsung Gear VR, proved to be a really nice headset with one small drawback: it doesn’t offer any hand tracking possibilities. And as hand movements play a pretty big role in many rehabilitation exercises, this was a challenge. But we of course like challenges.

The first target group we started designing for were hemispatial neglect patients. Neglect is a complex neurophysiological condition in which patients fail to be aware of items to one side of space. The majority of neglect patients are old people with brain injuries, and this target group quickly turned out to be a bit too challenging for us, as virtual reality is so immersive and therefore maybe a bit frightening for many older people.

After some more research we came up with the idea of a balance training game. Balance problems are common and their rehabilitation doesn’t necessarily require awareness of hand positions. The basic idea of the game was quickly formed: the patients’ objective is to focus their gaze on moving objects and keep looking at them for a certain time period. In the first version of the game these objects are fish and the background is an underwater view.

Everything in the game is meant to be fully customizable for each patient separately, though because of time-related constraints our team didn’t have the resources to fully implement everything we planned. Also with the help of a 360 degree camera the background could in theory be changed to a view that is meaningful for the patient. So if the patient for example has to spend large amounts of time indoors, this way they could visit familiar places virtually.

catch the fish

We did some user testing with our game at Pirkanmaan Erikoiskuntoutus, and the feedback we got was really positive. With some more work the game will certainly be of use for many patients. For example added levels and awards would probably make the game even more interesting and motivating.

In the coming months the first “real” VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, will be released to the consumer market. The possibilities they offer for rehabilitation purposes are much bigger, not just because of hand tracking, but also because of the added computational power. Therefore we put our thoughts in the future and also made a prototype for a platform, which would function as a collection of different games and experiences designed for rehabilitation use. This platform would store patient data so that all the progress could easily be tracked and monitored, and naturally it would work with every headset.

All in all we are pretty satisfied with the end result. Of course lots of things could have been made differently and more efficiently, but the goal was to explore the possibilities of VR, and that is what we did. Probably every team member also got new valuable experiences while working on this project. The victory of the Demola season we aimed for was frustratingly close, as we came second, but at least there were 25 teams behind us.

user testing

I’m convinced that virtual reality has lots of potential in making rehabilitation more fun and motivating. If you want to read more about the journey, please visit our blog.

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