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jul 20, 2017
Innovation and technology

Brazilian researchers are using VR tech for medical purposes


They might have begun as entertainment technology, but Brazilian scientists are now developing virtual reality (VR) gaming tools for medical purposes. The technology, with its electronic games, gesture recognition sensors, and VR glasses, is being used to help patients regain control of their motor skills.

In March, two projects on the topic were presented at the Brazilian Institute of Neuroscience and Neurotechnology (Brainn) conference in Campinas. There are currently two smartphone apps in development using this ground-breaking technology. The first, e-House, allows users to interact virtually with their home environment. And the second, e-Street, will place users in virtual situations that are typically faced in everyday urban environments.

The talk, led by researcher Alexandre Brandão, demonstrated how VR software is able to facilitate motor and neurofunctional rehabilitation. Researchers now want to see the technology become more accessible for medium- and long-term patients, such as those recovering from cardiac arrests and strokes.

The programs were developed at the federal university in Campinas, Unicamp, with support from FAPESP. In addition to recognising gestures, the VR technology encourages small, intentional movements that assist in rehabilitating other muscle groups. For example, users would need to move their legs to simulate steps within the VR game – but they could do so without the risks of falling, as they might in the street.

Thanks to 3D printing, researchers are also adding hardware to the software. Patients can attach ultrasonic sensors on their ankles, thereby allowing the VR technology to pick up on any movements they make. There’s also a small controller board attached to users’ waists, which communicates with the smartphone and VR headset via Bluetooth. These components mean that users can determine their direction by moving their heads and different parts of their body.

The technology’s first tests with stroke patients began in March, and Brandão says that the technology could also help older patients struggling with spatial disorientation and decreased motor capabilities.

“Many falls occur when an elderly person needs to divide attention between a motor task, such as climbing a ladder or diverting an object from the street, and a cognitive task, such as looking at a shop window or remembering the route back home,” he explained to the Brazilian media.

“With this software, it will be possible to train the attention associated with motor stimuli and anticipate situations that could endanger physical integrity.”

Physiotherapist and researcher Alline Camargo, who has also participated in the technology’s trial use, said that the apps show great potential for facilitating recovery. According to Camargo, both concentration and mental effort are required understand the game, thereby stimulating other parts of the brain to induce motion. According to the researcher, this repairs motor skills damaged by incidents such as strokes.

“It’s a really cognitive demand,” Camargo explained to local media, “because [the player] needs to assemble, to understand the image, while performing movements in reality. Because of this, we’ve had good results.”