Bath team explores virtual reality for improving balance

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A research team from Bath University is exploring the use of Virtual Reality (VR) to improve balance and prevent falls in older people.

Dr Soltani fitting a VR headset to a colleague helping with the research. Image: Bath University

Humans are able to keep balance using vision, feedback from muscles and joints (procioceptive) and from semi-circular canals in the ear (vestibular).

Traditionally, physical tests, such as on treadmills, are used to assess balance, but these can be inaccurate and unsafe, researchers said.

The team at Bath’s CAMERA motion capture research centre wanted to investigate how VR technology could provide a solution. Bath University’s Dr Pooya Soltani worked alongside Renato Andrade, from Clínica do Dragão, Espregueira-Mendes Sports Centre, FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence in Portugal. 

They reviewed data from 19 studies to investigate the validity, reliability, safety, feasibility and efficacy of using head-mounted display systems for assessing and training balance in older adults, with results published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

Virtual reality could hold key to preventing elderly falls

Our pipeline included photogrammetry for realistic avatars, motion capture for driving the avatar and updating the visual scene inside the headset, and the game engine for adding extra elements to the VR scene,” said Dr Soltani.

Soltani explained that VR can be used to create realistic scenarios such as crossing a street, or like a video game where patients navigate through a maze whilst performing cognitive tasks. The researchers also discovered that the complexity of the system could hinder balance, particularly in vestibular patients.

“In these cases, simple scenarios with fewer elements are preferable and we can increase the complexity of the system as patients gain more experience. Therefore, depending on the purpose of the study, age, and severity of disease of the users, we are able to create realistic and simple avatars,” Soltani said.

Whilst the technology has ‘great potential’, he added, further work is required before it can be used widely in rehabilitation. This could include reducing issues some users experience with motion sickness, and improving the system’s power and portability.