I-Learning IST project enhances rehabilitation and learning in the presence of virtual reality

Rome 17 May 2005Successful tests have shown that virtual reality (VR) can greatly help users to "mentally rehearse" and acquire new, or relearn old, motor tasks. Unlike current sports training practices or the rich simulation techniques used in pilot training, the I-Learning IST project used relatively simple VR technology which can potentially produce a compelling sense of presence that helps learners create new motor tasks or, if necessary, to activate and modify pre-existing ones.

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According to Fabrizio Davide from Telecom Italia Learning Services S.p.A. and project co-ordinator, I-Learning is based on the concept of Technology-Assisted Mental Rehearsal, which has been tested in two different situations with different VR set-ups. For neuro-rehabilitating stroke patients the project developed a "Virtual Reality Mirror" associated with a handtracking device; for learning to drive on ice, a virtual environment (VE).

"The set-up for neuro-rehabilitation can be used for a broad range of therapeutic exercises, designed to recover the functionality of a paralysed arm", explained technical co-ordinator Richard Walker. In the first stage of training the therapist shows the patient how to conduct a given movement using the healthy arm. The patient performs the movement, which is captured by a hand-tracker. The data is then used to generate a mirror image of the movement i.e. the movement the patient should try to do with the paralysed arm. Training consists of a mix of physical training - the therapist moves the patient's arm in synchrony with the image on the screen - and "imagery training": the patient "imagines" moving the arm.

Once the patients can effectively imagine the movement they are provided with a portable DVD, which they can use for mental rehearsals at home. The portable device plays short films of the exercises the patient is supposed to perform. "Patients use these films as a stimulus to imagine performing exercises they are not yet capable of performing physically", stated Richard Walker.

"Our first case study involved a patient whose condition had stabilised and was not expected to improve. The treatment proved extremely effective. Standard measures of patient performance showed major improvements in the patient's ability to use the affected arm, with a significant impact on the quality of his daily life", he stated. "These results are extremely encouraging", he added. "More case studies are in progress. If they give good results randomised clinical trials are likely."

For the driving trial the project prepared a VE reproducing the conditions a driver is likely to meet when driving on ice. The VE was tested in the three different simulator set-ups: a large scale immersive virtual cave; a midi-simulator, providing a degree of immersion but without the 3D and haptic effects provided by the cave; and a low-level PC-based simulator, using the same sort of equipment used for video games. As in the previous example, the training consisted of a mix of physical practice and mental rehearsals. Once users could imagine the driving task they were provided with a PC on which they could perform "home training".

The driving trial took place in two main stages. "In the first stage we compared the performance of the three simulators described earlier. Measurements of driving performance showed that drivers were able to achieve a significant improvement in performance with all three simulators with no differences between their performance in the different set ups", stated Richard Walker.

The second stage compared the learning performance of an experimental group who trained using "technology-assisted mental rehearsal" and a control group who used conventional simulator-based training. In general drivers in the experimental group improved their performance slightly more than those in the control group.

"According to our tests, technology-assisted mental rehearsal overall proved to be as effective as conventional training and in some cases even more successful. Given the low cost of technology-assisted mental rehearsal, it seems likely that in the future the new technique could have a strong social impact", Richard Walker concluded.

For more information you can contact Fabrizio Davide, Telecom Italia Learning Services S.p.A., Research and Development, Viale Parco dei Medici 37, Building D1, I-00148 Rome, Italy, Tel.: +39-06-36890425, Fax: +39-06-36872910, or visit the I-Learning project Web site. This article was reprinted from the IST Results Web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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