UNCG team using virtual reality to study – and improve – how humans walk

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Virtual reality goggles are normally used for video games. At UNC Greensboro, researchers are using the goggles to immerse people in a game, and although participating and studying the results can be fun, it’s being done to prevent — or help people recover from — serious injuries.

“We’re trying to figure out how we may be able to use virtual reality for physical therapy,” said Christopher Rhea, associate professor of kinesiology for UNCG.

Rhea says as humans walk, we swing our feet within an inch of the ground. Therefore, we’re walking a fine line between staying upright and taking a tumble.

“Every time you take a step, you’re within an inch of falling,” he said.

By using virtual reality, they’re provided with a flexible platform to they can study how people walk around the world. They can also study how they can put someone in a virtual reality environment to help retrain people on how to walk and balance once injury, aging or disease set in.

“There is that delicate balance between, how do you energetically and efficiently walk throughout the environment without the potential of falling,” Rhea said.

Through the program, they can build any virtual environment they want, while letting people practice in a safe space.

“It’s a visually challenging task that looks realistic, and you ultimately get the desired biomechanical movement of motor behavior movement, but there’s no physical consequence,” he said.

The team puts sensors on a participant’s shoes, before putting the virtual reality mask over their eyes. Inside the goggles, a pair of shoes appear in place of the participants, and the task is to avoid yellow objects along a path in the virtual reality room, as well as step on the blue objects.

The participant first has to step over what appears to be a series of raised bricks, before turning left and having to walk between poles, then turning right to walk heel-to-toe over a balance beam before stepping on a set of blue dots back to where the person began.

It’s awkward at first. See the above video for proof.

“We’ve already started working with older adult populations that have already fallen once,” Rhea said.

He adds that the greatest risk factor for a fall is a previous fall.

The team is also working with people in separate age ranges. Rhea says he’s been doing the research for about 10 years.

“We don’t really care that someone gets better at the video game, what we care about is can we use the video game to train how you walk and then that transfers to the real world,” he said.

Their hope is to identify populations that have trouble walking over things. In addition, they want to learn what type of training they can provide to minimize the risk of falls.

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