VR improves balance in older people

engineering careers  VR improves balance in older people

New Virtual Reality tech could help improve balance in older people.

Computer Scientists at CAMERA have been investigating if VR technology can help prevent falls and concluded a range of VR techniques are extremely useful in assessing and improving balance issues.

The team, from the University of Bath, has been investigating how virtual reality (VR) can be used to improve balance and work as a tool to prevent falls.

The issue itself is more serious than it might first appear. Currently, falls are the main cause of non-fatal injuries in over 65s – accounting for over 4 million hospital bed days each year in England alone. That racks up an estimated cost of £2 billion for the NHS.

It is common as people grow older to have issues with balance and because of that falling becomes more common. This not only increases the risk of injury but affects peoples independence.

old man

The team looked at how humans balance. We typically use three ways of keeping balance: vision, proprioceptive (physical feedback from muscles and joints) and vestibular system (feedback from semi-circular canals in the ear).

Out of these three, vision is the most important. Up to now ways of assessing balance have mixed patient surveys and physical tests such as treadmills. The problem is the accuracy of these tests can be affected by age, sex and motivation. Worse still, the movements measured aren’t reflective of any real-life scenarios.

Dr Pooya Soltani, from the University of Bath, and Renato Andrade, from Clínica do Dragão, Espregueira-Mendes Sports Centre – FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence, Porto (Portugal), reviewed data from 19 separate studies that investigated the validity, reliability, safety, feasibility and efficacy of using head-mounted display systems for assessing and training balance in older adults.

The teams’ results, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living confirmed that VR is an effective tool in assessing balance and is useful for fall prevention as well as improving postural control and gait patterns.

A key finding is that these systems can also be used successfully to differentiate healthy and balance-impaired individuals.

Dr Soltani, Studio Engineer at CAMERA, the University of Bath’s motion capture research centre explained that while “traditional tests for measuring balance can be inaccurate and sometimes unsafe – for example, if the patient is on a treadmill that stops suddenly [and] it may also be difficult to replicate real-life situations in a lab [that] using VR opens up a huge range of possible scenarios that are more natural and relevant to the real world.

“For example, patients could be asked to cross a busy street and these scenes can be adapted easily to help them gradually improve their balance and build up confidence in their movement.

“Alternatively, VR could be used more like a video game where patients navigate virtually through a maze whilst doing additional cognitive tasks, like solving mathematical problems.

“VR gives us the flexibility to add disorientating effects or resize and remove elements, to test how well participants maintain their balance.”

Interestingly there results found that during VR versions of traditional balance tests, older adults would typically adopt more cautious behaviour and take more time to complete the tasks. However, they also tended to find the tasks more enjoyable – meaning VR could help encourage participants to stick to a longer-term rehabilitation programme.

Unfortunately, Covid19 has delayed plans to test the technology on volunteers, however, the team of researchers are now looking to recruit PhD students to define protocols and develop a robust system that can be tested by users later in the year.

Published by Soltani, P., & Andrade, R. as  “The influence of virtual reality head-mounted displays on balance outcomes and training paradigms: A systematic review.” in Frontiers in Sports And Active Living, 2, [531535].