Currently prescribed physiotherapy often requires patients to complete regular exercises at home. Outside of the clinic, 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 getting the exercise right, or simply getting bored by the repetitiveness of the movements.
The advent of consumer virtual reality technology combined with 3D motion capture allows real movements to be accurately translated onto an avatar that can be viewed in a virtual environment. Researchers at the Institute of Digital Healthcare, WMG, University of Warwick are investigating whether this technology can be used to provide guidance to physiotherapy patients, by providing a virtual physiotherapist in the home to demonstrate the prescribed exercises.
Researchers had to investigate whether people were able to accurately coordinate and follow the movements of an avatar in a virtual environment. They 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 effect this correction had on their step timing and synchronisation with the avatar was measured.
Lead author, Omar Khan from WMG, University of Warwick commented: “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. 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.”
Dr Mark Elliott, Principal investigator on the project at WMG, University of Warwick added: “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.” Prof. Theo Arvanitis, co-author and Director of the Institute of Digital Healthcare, said: “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. 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.”