Virtual avatars can help perform physiotherapy at home

A new study explores the possibility of physiotherapy being translated onto a virtual avatar through the combination of virtual reality and 3D technology

Virtual Reality (VR) combined with 3D Motion technology could allow physiotherapy to be translated onto a virtual avatar whom the patient can follow at home with ease, say researchers.

Outside of the clinic, patients rarely receive any guidance other than a leaflet of sketches or static photographs to instruct them on 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.

"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," said Dr Mark Elliott, Principal investigator on the project from the University of Warwick.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers asked participants to step in time with an avatar viewed through a VR headset.

Physiotherapy Wikimedia Commons

Experimented with the possibilities

Unknown to the participants, the researchers subtly slowed down or speeded 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.

"We found that participants struggled to keep in time if only visual information was present," said lead author Omar Khan from WMG, University of Warwick.

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," Khan added in a paper published in the Journal PLOS ONE.

The 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," said Professor Theo Arvanitis, co-author, and Director of the Institute of Digital Healthcare.