The combination of technologies can provide guidance and feedback to patients outside a clinical setting, helping them not only to perform exercises correctly but also retain their interest in completing the treatment. Currently, patients prescribed physiotherapy at home usually rely on leaflets with sketches or photographs of the required exercises. But this can lead to poor compliance, with patients getting bored or being uncertain if they are performing the movements correctly.
In the WMG study, patients wearing a VR headset were asked to mimic the movements of a virtual avatar, stepping in time with the digital instructor. Without the knowledge of the participants, the researchers subtly slowed down or speeded up one of the avatar's steps, then measured the effect this correction had on the patients’ step timing and synchronisation.
"If participants were observed to correct their own stepping to stay in time with the avatar, we knew they were able to accurately follow the movements they were observing,” said WMG’s Omar Khan, lead author of the study, published in PLOS ONE.
"We found that participants struggled to keep in time if only visual information was present. However, when we added realistic footstep sounds in addition to the visual information, the more realistic multisensory information allowed participants to accurately follow the avatar."
While the study focused primarily on how well patients could respond to visual and audio cues to mimic the VR movements, the researchers believe the technology also has the potential to make physiotherapy much more interesting. Exercises in a virtual environment could take the form of games or challenges, helping retain patient interest and leading to better adherence rates.
"Our work and digitally-enabled technological solution can underpin transformative health innovations to impact the field of physiotherapy, and have a direct benefit to patients' rehabilitation,” said co-author Prof Theo Arvanitis, director of WMG’s Institute of Digital Healthcare.
"We now plan to investigate other types of movements working closely in partnership with physiotherapists, to establish the areas of physiotherapy that will benefit most from this technology."