VRINT initiative puts University of Twente on the medical Virtual Reality map

Amsterdam 13 September 2001At the beginning of September 2001, the University of Twente launched VRINT, the Virtual Reality Initiative Twente in the Netherlands. As Dr. H. van der Kooij explained in his presentation at the recent National Visualisation Days in Amsterdam, this is a combined effort of a number of departments together with several Dutch companies. One focus of the new initiative is "training operations in a virtual environment". Research has already been started on using Virtual Reality (VR) in rehabilitation, with a feasibility study and a pilot programme involving a VR set-up with a haptic feedback device.

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Before starting to develop at once a series of VR applications for rehabilitation purposes, the multi-disciplinary group of researchers in VRINT first decided to make a study on the exact user needs and patient requirements in a rehabilitation centre. Treatment costs for rehabilitation patients are very high due to the long period of recovery in which people for instance need to learn to walk properly again. The mission for the VRINT team is therefore to send people home earlier but at the same time prolong the rehabilitation process by having patients doing their exercises at home or in a health district centre.

The use of telemedicine can mean a big help in this process because it offers people a chance to download exercise programmes and Virtual Reality scenarios to practise at home while being assessed remotely by the rehabilitation specialist. Another great advantage of creating VR environments for rehabilitation consists in the possibility to integrate diagnostics, training, and evaluation in one single tool. In this way, you can create fixed rehabilitation protocols in what Dr. van der Kooij described as "evidence-based therapy". The VRINT researchers also hope to enhance patient motivation by developing and using VR solutions.

The team has made a feasibility report focused on the acceptance of VR devices and tools applied for patient treatment among the rehabilitation physicians and therapists. To this end, doctors were asked to share their opinion on which kind of VR applications could be useful. A number of research projects have resulted from this study, focusing on balance training and neglect training. People suffering from the neglect syndrome consider the left part of the world as non-existent since the brain is no longer aware of this reality. Some patients even throw their left leg out of bed, experiencing it as a strange object, not belonging to the body. According to Dr. van der Kooij, VR scenarios could be built to have these people regain their left hemisphere conscience again.

In a pilot experiment with 11 rehabilitation candidates, a haptic device with phantom was designed which enables patients to roll the dice, play with virtual clay, etc. Rehabilitation specialists thought the exercises to be very useful but not ready yet for clinical use, also because of current restrictions in the legal conditions of employment. Research is going on to adapt the scenarios for daily recovery therapy. Since two years already, the Motek company is working on balance training with the CAREN platform. The idea of human movement behaviour coupled to a VR platform by means of visual detection has now been picked up by the VRINT researchers as well.

In collaboration with Motek, haptic devices are being developed to help train patients with lesions causing paralysis. People who are not able to use their arm are stimulated to practise with virtual objects. Dr. van der Kooij expects integrated systems will be available within 5 to 10 years. A final idea is the use of aid robots which support the patient during the exercises in order to accelerate the learning process and to discharge the therapist. The challenge consists in constructing the robot in a way that it authentically imitates human movement behaviour and helps the patient in a constructive and friendly manner. Dr. van der Kooij concluded that these robot solutions naturally have to be economically viable.


Leslie Versweyveld

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