Art-science collaboration helps rehabilitate brain injury patients

25 September 2008

A three-year art-science collaboration is unlocking the potential of virtual reality in rehabilitation.

The Elements project is supported through the Australia Council’s interdisciplinary arts initiative Synapse and the Australian Research Council. Melbourne-based media artist Jonathan Duckworth teamed up with Associate Professor in Psychology at RMIT, Peter Wilson to develop a virtual reality workspace that helps patients with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) regain movement.

TBI is the main cause of death and disability in adolescents and young adults, and has social and economic costs in excess of $3 billion per year in Australia.

Three male patients between the ages of 20 – 25 were recruited for preliminary research using the system. They were seen to improve their gestural skills significantly with documented improvements to their movement accuracy, efficiency and attention to tasks at hand. These results were presented at the Virtual Rehabilitation Conference (VR2008) in Vancouver, Canada earlier this month.

Elements visual interface. Photo: courtesy of RMIT.

The physical design of the Elements system consists of a large horizontal tabletop graphics display, a vision-based tracking system, and a user interface that incorporates sensor technology that conveys to the patient the effects of their movement. The combination of 3D technology is designed to help patients re-train movement, their sense of embodiment, and self efficacy. Other collaborators on the design of the system include Nick Mumford and Ross Eldridge of RMIT, and Pat Thomas and David Shum (Griffith University).  Dr Gavin Williams (Epworth Hospital in Melbourne) who helped set up the evaluation study. 

Australia Council inter-arts office director Andrew Donovan said: ‘It is incredibly exciting to see the way bringing artists and scientific teams into collaboration can lead to innovative solutions to the challenges we face in our communities. The Elements program is a great example of artists and scientists pushing the boundaries and using creative means to improve the quality of life for TBI patients.’

According to Associate Professor Peter Wilson, the marriage of art and science in the Elements project is a significant step forward in rehabilitation that is sure to attract continued interest. 

‘TBI patients are a young disability group, hence have experienced technology in every aspect of their lives so the use of virtual reality environments and creative interactivity is a great fit.’

‘All of the patients were very keen to interact with system in a creative way and showed increased motivation, engagement and enjoyment whilst using the system.  The results strongly suggest that creative applications improve TBI patients’ motor and cognitive skills,’ Associate Professor Wilson said.

The Elements team is now exploring the possibility of tailoring the system for a broader spectrum of people with mobility impairments.

In collaboration with colleagues in London, Dr Dido Green and Prof Jean-Pierre Lin, Wilson and Duckworth will also develop a paediatric system designed to augment therapy for childhood stroke, Cerebral Palsy, and TBI.

Elements has opened up a world of possibilities for us, we’re excited about taking it to the next level.’ Associate Professor Wilson added.


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