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Christchurch tech companies are using virtual reality for a curious new venture: helping people with spinal injuries master their wheelchairs.
For those who suffer spinal injuries or paralysis later in life, leaving the hospital is often the beginning rather than completion of the recovery process. While wheelchair technology has evolved significantly over the last decade, they are often still large, cumbersome and tricky to master.
But an unusual collaboration between two video gaming companies, a wheelchair designer and a spinal recovery unit think they have struck on part of the solution: what they’ve dubbed a “Virtual Reality Wheelchair Trainer”.
Designed by Christchurch company Stickmen Media, it’s a simulator that allows patients to learn how to control a wheelchair in virtual reality – before even leaving the hospital.
Stickmen Media chief executive Brook Waters says for people leaving hospital with spinal injuries, the transition to using an electronic wheelchair can be a difficult – and dangerous – learning curve.
“Their lives are different, their bodies are different, they are looking at the world from a different angle, and they actually tend to do themselves – and their homes – quite a bit of damage when they get out,” he says.
“The wheelchairs are high torque, they’re very heavy devices – so if you happen to run into the toilet with your wheelchair you might break the toilet, but you’ll probably break your leg as well.
“Getting people to learn the navigation is something much more safely done in a virtual world than a real world – so when you get into the real world, it’s a whole lot less dangerous and more familiar to you.”
Stickmen Media worked with Facebook-owned gaming company Oculus Rift, who have developed a full virtual reality headset. They’re able to 3-D scan an entire house, so the rooms, furniture and doors can be recreated identically to reality.
“It’s a virtual environment with all the usual stuff – chairs and tables you can run into and knock over,” Waters says.
Their first virtual home is Burwood Hospital’s independent living unit, which houses people with spinal injuries when they first leave the ward.
Jo Nunnerly, clinical rehabilitation researcher at Burwood Hospital is excited at the idea of taking the technology further.
“It’s great to have [the transitional unit] as a virtual training environment” she says, “but ultimately we could create a 3D model of the patient’s house, helping them to transition to their home environment much sooner.”
Waters said the company was already in conversations with major international wheelchair suppliers, but remained tight lipped about specifics.
The idea grew out of EPIC Innovation Centre, where Stickmen is based, and Waters said the collaborative environment it provided for small startups had been vital to the success of the projects.
“There are so many collaborations that start here in the kitchen in this building, it’s an amazing place. This project came directly out of that, and was fast-tracked by the relationship we have with Callaghan – they are right next door to us. We’ve had collaborations with many people in the building, and this is one that’s really taken off.”
Callaghan Innovation funded the idea under their Medtech unit, but Waters says they’ll soon be seeking further investment for marketing and further product development.
MedTech sector manager Diana Siew, says Callaghan are keen to showcase how new technologies can be used in health applications. “This provides new opportunities for both the healthcare sector in terms of patient outcomes as well as new areas for our industry to grow into.”
The Wheelchair Trainer system will make its public debut at the annual conference MedTech conference on June 15.
This article was written by Tess McClure and posted on Stuff.co.nz, you can click here to visit the original article.
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