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The vHAB project uses devices including the Leap Motion to help stroke patients and others with upper extremity injuries regain muscle control and track their recovery. (Photo: University of Washington)

A big key to recovering from a stroke, spinal cord injury, burn or other upper-extremity trauma is the ability to continue the prescribed physical therapy consistently for many months at home. It’s a critical window of time, because there’s no turning back the clock to try to regain full function if a patient gives up.

Progress is difficult to perceive. Many patients stop after less than two months.

But computers and sensors can detect even tiny improvements in mobility and muscle activity — and that data can encourage people to stick with their rehab.

That’s the idea behind vHAB, a University of Washington graduate student project that uses devices including the gesture-detecting Leap Motion controller, in combination with a series of custom video games, to lead stroke patients and others through their long-term therapy, tracking their progress along the way.

Lise Johnson (left), a senior fellow in neurological surgery who helped lead a ten-week competition at the University of Washington, stands with the winning team, vHAB. Photo courtesy of Gavin W. Sisk, UW Creative.
vHAB co-founders Brian Mogen (second from left) and Tyler Libey (blue shirt and tie) with Lise Johnson (left), a senior fellow in neurological surgery who helped lead a ten-week competition at the University of Washington. (Photo: Gavin W. Sisk, UW Creative)

“Even the smallest gains that you can’t see are helping,” said Tyler Libey, a UW bioengineering graduate student and a co-founder of the project. “We really want to show people that they are getting better. Keep them encouraged, keep them doing their therapies, so they don’t get to the point where they’re trying to go back in time to do their therapy, because it just doesn’t work that way. We’re really trying to help people regain function.”

We first reported on the vHAB project when it won the Tech Sandbox competition last year at the UW’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. A lot has happened since then, including a $40,000 commercialization grant for vHAB from the UW’s CoMotion program (formerly the Center for Commercialization).

The vHAB team has filed for a provisional patent, and showed its technology at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Now they’re preparing for another milestone — a pilot study at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center that will serve as the first big test of their ideas.

“A very common theme that I hear from patients when they come into my clinic is that they don’t feel like they’re making gains,” said Dr. Jared Olson, a physician and researcher at the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center who is a clinical advisor to the vHAB project. “They get frustrated with the lack of progress or slow progress. I think actually showing some evidence that they are improving — even if they’re small improvements — can be very helpful to people.”

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vHAB team members Lars Crawford, Dimitrios Gklezako, Tyler Libey and Brian Mogen.

Experiencing the Technology

In the middle of the giant International CES in Las Vegas last month — amidst glitzy displays of wearable devices, home technologies and music players — I found the vHAB project at the UW Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering’s modest booth at the Eureka Park section, which showcases startups and emerging technologies. The UW center is supported by the National Science Foundation, which is one of the presenters of the Eureka Park section at CES each year.

For student projects like vHAB, it’s an opportunity to make connections across the tech industry and show their work to thousands of people from around the world.

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Tyler Libey demonstrates the vHAB prototype with the Oculus Rift at CES in Las Vegas last month.

With the Leap Motion sensor on the table in front of me, detecting the movement of my hand, I moved my arm and fingers to grab virtual blocks and place them onto a shelf on the computer screen in front of me. The software and hardware worked smoothly together, and even with full function of my arm and hand, it was a fun challenge to properly grab and place the blocks.

The Leap Motion sensor provides quantitative information about the the movement of the user’s wrist, fingers and hands. The vHAB team has also developed a sleeve with sensors that record muscle activity in the forearm, providing information about quality of movement.

The idea is to provide data about movement and muscle activity in real time to give both the patient and physician real-time feedback. After an initial calibration phase, the data is used to automatically adjust how the game progresses, stepping up the level of difficulty and creating new objectives based on the patient’s progress.

In addition, the team experimenting with virtual reality, using the Oculus Rift headset as an immersive 3D viewing device, but a basic approach with a standard 2D display will provide the foundation for their initial tests.

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What’s next for vHAB

The project is a prime example of broader trends reshaping the tech industry — the use of sensors and data to detect and influence activities in the physical world. It also demonstrates the potential for technology to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

“One of the problems after a stroke is there’s not a lot of great therapies out there in terms of drugs or other things that we know would accelerate the healing process or help people in the long run,” said Dr. Olson, the clinical advisor to the vHAB project. “Really the mainstay is rehabilitation and working with therapists. The more therapy you can get, and the sooner you can get it, the better off you are.”

Dr. Jared Olson, clinical adviser to the vHAB project.
Dr. Jared Olson, clinical advisor to the vHAB project.

For now, vHAB is still a student project, led by graduate students in bioengineering, neurobiology and computer science, but the long-term potential does exist to form a business around the approach.

The team is preparing to participate again in the University of Washington’s Business Plan Competition, where they placed 17 out of 96 teams last year, just missing the top 16. “We’re hoping that our year of experience and networking with care-givers will give us the edge we need,” Libey said.

The potential applications are broad. The project is a natural fit for stroke patients, people with brain injuries and other forms of neurological rehabilitation. But long term, Olson noted, there could also be other applications of the technology, in areas such as orthopedics. In addition to hospitals and patient homes, a natural venue for vHAB would be skilled nursing facilities, where multiple patients could take advantage of a single vHAB setup.

In the meantime, the team is seeking additional grant money and continuing to build out its network of physicians, therapists and business advisors. Olson credited the vHAB team for establishing an especially diverse set of advisors and participants from a broad range of disciplines.

For the upcoming Harborview pilot, the goals include seeing how patients initially react to the vHAB system, how they use the system, and whether they are truly more engaged with their therapy as a result of the approach.

The vHAB technology “doesn’t replace the one-on-one therapy time that people get, but it may help augment that and help them improve more in shorter periods of time,” Olson said. “That’s our hope.”

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