Virtual reality lets amputees train with a prosthesis

[From New Scientist’s One Per Cent blog; more information, including additional images and a longer video, is available from The Vienna University of Technology]

Virtual reality lets amputees train with a prosthesis

24 August 2012
Douglas Heaven, reporter

Even Oscar Pistorius had to learn to walk before he could run. But learning to live with a prosthetic limb can be a difficult and frustrating experience.

To help amputees get to grips with a new prosthetic arm, the prosthesis manufacturer Otto Bock has teamed up with researchers from the Interactive Media Systems Group at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria to develop a virtual reality training environment called ProsthesisTrainer.

Wearing a VR headset and sensors to track arm movements, users can practise their control skills without risking damage to themselves or their surroundings. Training tasks include manipulating differently shaped virtual objects and learning how to adjust the force of a prosthetic hand’s grasp – if a virtual object is squeezed too firmly it explodes. The video shows the current prototype, but the researchers plan to add more complex scenarios in the next few months.

The set-up combines a motion-capture system called iotracker with electromyography, a technique for monitoring electrical signals in skeletal muscles. Data from the motion and electrical sensors is then fed into ARTiFICe, a VR framework for mapping the real world onto virtual objects, which is built on top of Unity 3 – a popular video game engine.

So far, the system has been tested with non-amputee volunteers only, says Annette Mossell at the Vienna University of Technology, who presented the work this week at Unite, an annual conference devoted to Unity. But the next round of evaluation will be done with the cooperation of the Vienna General Hospital and supervised by medical experts.


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