A Digital Future for Physical Rehabilitation

For people who lose some of their ability to move due to accidents, injuries, or disease, recovery can be a long and expensive process, as well as psychologically trying. Can virtual reality games hold the key to a speedy recovery? James Moffet from THINK gets in touch with the team behind the PRIME-VR2 project to find out.

Half a century ago, the sight of virtual reality (VR) goggles and a set of controllers being waved aimlessly around would have been considered unreal. Nowadays, we regularly see children and adults using this technology with smiles on their faces. And yet, what is taking place within a particular lab goes far beyond your typical zombie survival game or a virtual roller coaster ride in one’s own living room.

The University of Malta (UM) is currently involved in PRIME-VR2, a Horizon 2020 funded  research project related to the use of VR for rehabilitation purposes. The UM research team, led by Prof. Ing. Philip Farrugia (Department of Industrial Manufacturing Engineering, UM) is collaborating with project leaders from the University of Pisa and 12 other EU organisations, including universities, SMEs, and living labs. The goal is to create customised, low-cost, wearable devices that provide accessible and effective rehabilitation methods for individuals lacking motor functions, either through accidents or disease.

One Controller to rule them all

While several off-the-shelf VR controllers are available, these exist solely for gaming purposes. The idea behind the project is to create a 3D-printed VR controller which is specifically designed for rehabilitation purposes. 

The main challenge is how to strike a balance between the needs of people and commercialising the product. The team needs to consider what patients and therapists need while keeping things user friendly and financially competitive. 

Doctoral student Ing. Edward Abela (Department of Industrial Manufacturing Engineering, UM) is carrying out research aimed at identifying these challenges and bringing together a cohesive assessment in order to better analyse, assess, and document all requirements from different perspectives.

The Road to Recovery

Recovery can be a long and expensive process. The research team behind this project is investigating the best and most cost-effective 3D-printed technology for rehabilitation purposes. The main component of this technology comprises the use of a joystick or controller to assist the wearer in managing the use of their arms.

THINK met up with Farrugia, who talked about how they are making this technology as adaptable as possible to people’s needs. ‘In order to cut costs, we came up with a modular design, where one can shift the controller band according to whether one requires just therapy or otherwise.’ The therapy module on the controller can be worn according to the wearer, and its use and function can vary significantly. The project is targeting three types of patients: those with musculoskeletal conditions, which usually involve injuries caused through sports activities, together with post-stroke patients and individuals suffering from dystonia, a movement disorder where muscles contract involuntarily.

‘We are currently on the third design iteration, and we are almost there,’ remarks Farrugia on the development of the controller. With this device comes an array of games that help simulate the required therapeutic movements for the wearer. ‘The games featured include sports, painting, and similar daily activities. It all depends on the target user for whom we’re developing the games,’ he adds.

Testing all the way

The UM’s role is crucial in the testing of equipment, design feedback, and project dissemination, amongst others. Prof. Ing. Glenn Cassar (Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, UM), together with Dr Ing. Pierre Vella and Ing. Emanuel Balzan from the Department of Industrial Manufacturing Engineering are contributing on various aspects related to the testing of these controllers. Dr Maria Victoria Gauci from the Faculty for Social Wellbeing is overseeing the evaluation of the device and providing the necessary feedback on how such a device can be improved from a therapeutic point of view.

Getting past any stage of the testing phase is fraught with challenges. ‘As with anything else,’ explains Farrugia, ‘everything has its advantages and disadvantages. If you’re going to wear a VR headset, you may experience motion sickness.’ The key component of such a project is to understand and identify user needs in the design of the wearable device and working with people from diverse fields from an initial concept all through to the actual physical product. When such conceptual designs are given to clinicians, designers, and patients, each calls for different requirements and specifications that they think are most essential — resulting in evaluations which cannot all be met harmoniously. 

The coming months have a lot in store for the project. ‘Apart from functional testing, we need to assess the effectiveness of our approach compared to traditional therapy,’ comments Farrugia. ‘Results from such tests will be used to develop an innovative approach to the rehabilitation process of numerous patients living with  motor dysfunction or other disorders.’

In addition, as part of the PRIME-VR2 project, UM will be hosting an upcoming international workshop called ‘Design for Additive Manufacturing: Future Interactive Devices’ in March 2022. This event will ensure mutually beneficial discussions and collaboration in exploiting 3D printing to develop future interactive devices with particular emphasis on rehabilitation .

While we haven’t quite reached a cyberpunk future just yet, where the lines of cyborg and human blur, we are getting closer to VR putting a smile on patient’s faces. Thanks to virtual reality and the tireless work of engineers, patients will be able to recover and heal faster, securing a better future for everyone. 

This research is part of a €4M Horizon 2020 project, titled ‘Personalised Recovery Through A Multi-User Environment: Virtual Reality for Rehabilitation’ (PRIME-VR2, project ref. H2020-856998).

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