Virtual reality game can greatly help stroke victims

April 14, 2011 8:36:19 PM PDT
A new technology is helping some elderly patients regain their balance and flexibility. It works by allowing the patients to work out with their virtual selves.

At 74-years-old, Beale Hughes doesn't play quite as much beach volleyball as she might like, but her avatar does.

Beale is rehabbing from cancer at the Rheem Valley Convalescent Hospital in Contra Costa County. She's strengthening her balance with the help of a new interactive exercise system called the Omni-VR.

"It feels, believe it or not, like fun," said Hughes.

As Beale moves, an infrared camera mounted on top of the monitor is capturing her entire body in 3D. Her movements are then relayed via software to her avatar -- the character playing the game on the screen. When Beale twists, bends and moves her arms, the avatar does the same.

"I'm a little tired, but happily so," said Hughes.

Ernie Escovido is an occupational therapist with Accelerated Care Plus, the company that developed the system. He says the games engage the patient's upper and lower bodies far more than simple gaming controls used in earlier systems, encouraging them to stretch and move in natural motion.

"It enables us to really engage the patient's true movements and then drive the actual rehab programs we're using," said Escovido.

Beale needs the help of a therapist to complete some of the movements, but says she's already made strides using the system.

"like my friends who come and visit, noticed a difference in my balance. You have to have balance and I certainly need more of it," said Hughes.

There is new research backing this type of rehab. A study from the University of Toronto found using virtual reality games led to significant improvement in patients who suffered a stroke. They found that patients who played virtual reality games in therapy had nearly a five time higher chance of recovering strength in their limbs than patients who did not.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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