Virtual reality helps people get back on their feet—literally

Falls by elderly individuals oftentimes result in hospitalization—and a lack of methods to predict balance impairment doesn’t help. A study, published in Scientific Reports, found the use of virtual reality (VR) can identify imbalance in patients and prevent falls.

Researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University believe VR technology has the ability to prevent falls among the elderly by analyzing how patients walk in a virtually distorted environment.

Led by Jason R. Franz, PhD, assistant professor in the Joint UNC/NC State department of biomedical engineering, the team used a VR system to create a virtual illusion of lost balance as patients walked on a treadmill with a curved screen depicting a moving hallway. A total of 14 cameras were used to record the movement of 30 different markers placed on the patient’s legs, back and pelvis. The cameras revealed how the muscles controlled the placement of the foot in each patient, revealing factors for potential treatments in reversing balance impairments.

"As each person walked, we added lateral oscillations to the video imagery, so that the visual environment made them feel as if they were swaying back and forth, or falling," said Franz. "We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking. We also learned how individual muscles are highly coordinated in preserving walking balance. These things provide an important roadmap for detecting balance impairments and the risk of future falls."

Franz believes this technology could pave the way for additional clinical practices in predicting falls and diagnosing balance impairments.

"We think there's a big opportunity to use visual perturbations in a VR setting to reveal balance impairments that would not be detected in conventional testing or normal walking," Franz said. "Early work in our lab suggests it's possible to use these visual perturbations to train a person's balance control system to respond better to imbalance that occurs in daily living.”