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Virtual reality and physical therapy: New tool, not new toy

April 15, 2017

I’m still not exactly sure why Pokemon Go became an overnight sensation. The new augmented reality game sets people out in the community catching small fantasy creatures. A small cohort of physical therapists has even figured out ways to leverage the game helping younger patients to participate in active movements where they may have been hesitant to before. This article sets out to explore the implications of virtual reality in physical therapy.

It’s clear that augmented and virtual reality will play a significant role in the future of therapy, and the truth is they have been for the past 20 years. “We are in a wave of interest fueled by interest from the upcoming mainstream,” Says Vincent John Vincent, CEO of GestureTek – a company which develops VR products designed for therapists. Back in the 1980’s GestureTek began developing gesture technologies that would advance the way people interacted with machines. In the late 90’s more efforts were placed on the development of technologies for rehab. GestureTek added new features which allow therapists to control where items show up on the screen so that patients would have to interact with the “virtual world” in very specific movement patterns.

Technology and Patient Care

For patients, VR and augmented reality both have the benefit of gamification and making the process of therapy fun. Would you rather reach up and down ten times, or catch a Pokemon in the high kitchen cabinet? VR and augmented reality have substantially increased the engagement rates of patients. When asked about the evidence, Vincent John Vincent stated, “The first five studies by PT / OT were very positive with the willingness to do exercise very high and 2-3 x longer engagement from patients.”

The technology behind virtual reality is starting to develop quickly. Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are all in on the race. With the big three pursuing better and better technology the possibilities will be endless. Imagine having the ability to place a stroke patient in a full immersion atmosphere where you can take the concepts of mirror therapy to a whole new level. The amount of sensory inputs that you can provide a patient and the data outputs that can be collected are going to grow exponentially.

Vincent states that the GestureTek team will continue to develop out its core technologies improving upon both tactile and movement components to provide a full spectrum of treatment options.

Interactive Rehabilitation and Exercise System

Interactive Rehabilitation and Exercise system, or IREX is a system used to “gameify” therapy in an immersive video environment. Patients are able to experience a new environment and work on therapeutic exercises to improve function. With an all immersive system patients are stimulated in ways they would not be in a typical therapy session.  Patients are able to “see themselves” performing actions, similar how they do in mirror therapy. They also have higher engagement with their treatment due to the more enjoyable and entertaining modality. Although around for quite some time, virtual and augmented reality are still in their infancy, but those who have adopted it have seen positive results.

Virtual Reality is not only fun but will continue to be a driver in the world of rehab. As the technology and evidence improve, the adoption of these new techniques will become more mainstream, and patients will benefit more and more from improved outcomes. I am looking forward to seeing how the future of VR plays out.

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