Therapeutic robotics one step closer to in-home use

July 26, 2016

New low-cost robotic devices may soon be available to help physical therapy patients perform repetitive at-home recovery exercises, say scientists and therapy treatment experts eager to see the technology consumer-ready.

“They are really excited about the way it is designed and how it is different from previous attempts,” says researcher Dr. Mike Van der Loos of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Department of Mechanical Engineering within the Faculty of Applied Science. He serves as principal investigator for this project, created through the Wall Solutions Initiative at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

One of the greatest challenges in the field of physical therapy stems from the fact that exercise programs can be tedious and dull, making them difficult for patients to stick to. For example, for a child or adult suffering from hemiplegia– a weakness of one side of the body typically caused by cerebral palsy or stroke– it takes thousands of coordinated repetitions to facilitate neuroplastic brain recovery. 

Enter Dr. Van der Loos and the team at the RREACH – Robotics for Rehabilitation, Exercise and Assessment in Collaborative Healthcare – biomedical engineering lab. Alongside physical therapy practitioners, the group is in the final testing phases of a therapeutic robotics project that will combine physical therapy, social media and online gaming to motivate and engage patients with repetitive physical therapy practice.

“Our own particular approach is that we assume that you have your own games essentially, and this would be through Facebook or through some other social media.”

“We don’t care what you play as long as you play, and you play what you want,” says Dr. Van der Loos, explaining that users now have the opportunity to become engaged in their recovery exercises by choosing between everything from arcade style games, first person shooters, traditional board games like Scrabble, and even simulation games like Sim City.

An earlier version of the FEATHERS bimanual controllers (above), which use a laptop to play online games, was updated with better button arrangement before in-home testing began with patients in October. The controllers use electronic components similar to a commercial Play Station Move controller, with a completely redesigned shell.

One beneficial treatment for hemiplegia is bimanual therapy, in which patients perform synchronized movements with both their weak and strong arms at the same time. The current research project, titled Functional Engagement in Assisted Therapy Through Exercise Robotics (FEATHERS), supports bimanual therapy by combining a pair of custom-designed motion sensitive game controllers and with new software that requires a user to coordinate both hands to move a computer screen cursor in an online game.

“If you use one hand the cursor does not move, if you use both hands it does,” explains Dr. Van der Loos.He adds the concept is unique and exciting to community and industry partners because the software can be used in any cursor-driven online game a patient prefers, as opposed to past systems that worked only with a very select number of specialized games.

In-home testing of 20 FEATHERS systems begins this October and will run for six months before final data analysis, focusing on the Facebook social media gaming platform on laptop computers. However, Dr. Van der Loos says the technology could easily be applied to other social media gaming platforms and even tablets. 

Dr. Van der Loos calls the project “robotics light” in the sense that the team is using robotic control algorithms to use human motions captured by controllers to drive an onscreen object, although his lab has in the past and continues to work on developing actual robots that provide physical feedback for therapy purposes.

Another unique feature of the FEATHERS project comes from the Solutions Initiative, which links top UBC researchers with community partners or end-users to develop innovative and practical solutions.

“I think it’s a very vibrant way to do research, and to conduct research that is of ultimate benefit to people in society,” says Dr. Van der Loos. His lab has been working on FEATHERS with rehabilitation clinicians who work with the public treating children and adults with cerebral palsy and post-stroke hemiplegia, and he says it’s been a novel research experience applying some of the same therapy principles to such different age and clinical populations.

Dr. Van der Loos says project partners are eager to see the technology finalized for use with their clients, and says he has been in contact with a handful of companies in the hopes of taking the project on to commercialization.

“There are gaming companies interested in moving into [the rehabilitation] sector because they see that as a new revenue stream,” he explains.

The community partnership has provided Dr. Van der Loos and his team with a link to end-users, helpful feedback and brand new ideas on how to best introduce patients to the technology.

“From the engineering side, I have to be highly receptive to the medical professionals, their community and their work practice. And from the medical side, there has to be a receptiveness to new technology, to prototypes and to things not working in research,” he laughs.

“That’s part of the reason they call it research. You’re trying to figure out what does work, which means you run across a lot of things that don’t first.”