VR for Spinal Rehabilitation

Physical therapy, for those recovering from a spinal cord injury, can be a long and grueling affair. In an effort to better target the right muscles, and possibly make such a recovery just a tiny bit more fun, Karley Benoff, a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Washington, with her two teammates, has created RISE, or Rehabilitation for Independent Seated Extension.
The new technology is essentially a set of sensors worn on the back and connected to a pair of augmented reality glasses. The data from the back muscles gets fed to the glasses where they become a kind of video game to encourage patients to sit-up, and improve their balance, strength, and stability.
The UW team created the device in less than 36 hours—at the Center for Neurotechnology Hackathon. And Benoff’s prototype earned her team the first place.
Benoff and her team members, Preston Pan from UW and Melchizedek Mashiku from Georgia State University, had access to piles of hardware, software, and augmented reality glasses that they were encouraged to use.
With a magnetometer at the top of the spine and electromyography sensors at the base, their invention monitors patient muscle movements. The data is processed and sent to the glasses. Whoever is wearing the device will see a ball that they are meant to keep level as they try to sit-up.
“We wanted to bring in an element of play to make it more enjoyable,” Benoff said. “Having this motion learning as part of a game is really beneficial to building strength.”
Though it won the hackathon, their final version never managed to work on the VR glasses. The technology was still in development and unable to handle all the data. “It was a really interesting problem,” Benoff said. “In school we always have a solution key—I like problems that haven’t been solved yet.” Benoff and her teammates were able to get a simulation working on a computer.
Benoff believes that her team’s success had a lot to do with how they came up with the idea in the first place. “We’d all had design classes that emphasized the need for scoping and doing your work ahead of time,” Benoff said. “Front load your work to know what your deliverables are.”
They spent their first three hours at the hackathon brainstorming. They wrote every idea they had onto a white board, then graded each idea in terms of the skills it would need to become a reality, its feasibility, as well as how well it aligned with the Center for Neurotechnology’s mission. Then they cut it down to 20 top ideas, then to five.
After that it was all organization and hard work. “We kind of took a divide and conquer approach,” she said. “I wrote everyone’s names down on our white board, then wrote down what we needed to accomplish—we’re all very methodical people.”
Benoff sees RISE as an open source idea. As the software they came up with is nearly complete, to make the device a reality the hardware needs to come to speed. And they’ll need a little more of that other rare commodity. “I’m only limited by my time,” Benoff said. “I like to have my hands in a lot of cookie jars.”
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
Recommended for You: MakerHack Magic for DUMBO