Medical VR Turns Gaming Into Physical Therapy

Project Walk Again

Miguel Nicolelis, co-director for the Duke Center of Neuroengineering, led a year-long study in treating paraplegic patients with VR technology. Seven out of the eight patients were considered complete paraplegics, and all of them had lived with paraplegia for at least three years. The results? All eight reported an increase in muscle control and sensation in the lower limbs. Half of them were reclassified as incomplete, or partial, paraplegics. Walk Again Neurorehabilitation is a huge step in what is already a long line of medical VR applications.

How Did They Do It?

Life-changing innovations.
Life-changing innovations.

Nicolelis and his team fitted their patients with an Oculus Rift and an EEG cap. The HMD immersed the patient in a virtual stadium and put them in control of a soccer player. The Walk Again team asked patients to move the soccer player by imagining themselves making the movement. The patients were able to activate the parts of their brain associated with leg movement, as revealed by the EEG cap.

After the first stage, the patients were fitted for a robotic exoskeleton. They were later able to control the movements of this exoskeleton in the same way they did with their virtual soccer player. This video shows Patient 1’s progress at the 2:10 mark. Paraplegia affected her for 14 years, but she is able to manipulate her foot 13 months into the study. The result is nothing short of miraculous.

From Medical VR to VR Fitness

Goldman Sachs predicts that the VR market will be worth $80 billion in 2025. Gaming hardware and software will make up the biggest slice of the pie ($11.6 billion), but VR healthcare will be second in line ($5.1 billion). With projects like Walk Again, it’s not difficult to imagine why the future of VR will mean much more than entertainment. Just look at what Pokemon GO turned into.

Pokemon GO: the big wave of AR and fitness Photo by ProtoplasmaKid.
Pokemon GO: the big wave of AR and fitness
Photo by ProtoplasmaKid.

In the same way VR can change athlete training, medical VR can change lives. Paraplegic patient rehabilitation used to focus on adapting to life in a wheelchair, but Walk Again switches the focus to getting legs working again. As a result, medicine may no longer have to be about coping, but improving.

Think about how many times you or someone you know promised to start going to the gym again. Or maybe an injury forced them to take smaller steps. Fitness can be difficult to jump back into if you’ve been out of the game for years, too. VR can help make the transition easier, whether it is through a video game, or, as the future suggests, through medical VR.

– Osmond Arnesto

Have you seen a really cool VR experience you think we should know about? Leave a comment below so we can check it out!