Review of the VR training schedule with a patient. (photo: Konrad Lippert)
With VR and augmented reality, Hamburg doctor Taher Pham is developing a new rehabilitation program
that allows patients to train at pro sporting levels using gamification approaches. He presented his project
at the Hamburg Animation Conference on June 19.
Rehab in virtual reality
Undertaking rehabilitation treatment at a professional sporting level and having fun while doing so – in the not too distant future, what right now seems categorically impossible may become a reality. With the help of virtual and augmented reality, Doctor Taher Pham wants to turn the local rehabilitation landscape on its head: VReha Pro is the name of the project that the scholar of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation has been pursuing for nearly a year. Along with the medical lead of the Athleticum at the University Hospital Hamburg, Dr. Götz Welsch, he has been working on a training concept oriented towards professional sport, but which should also be suitable for normal rehabilitation patients, “We want normal people to have access to a really good rehabilitation program – and later, we also want them to be able to train without physiotherapists,” says Pham. An honourable goal, which with the help of Dr. Welsch, who is also team physician to Hamburg SV soccer club, could soon become a reality. But how exactly will the new program work?
PD Dr. Götz Welsch —Team Doctor Hamburger Sportverein, Leader Athletikum Hamburg and Taher Pham at the Center for Athletic Medicine, UKE. (photo: Konrad Lippert)
Rehabilitation meets gamification
With the help of movement tracking, the patient’s exact movements will be recorded by a camera. Wearing VR goggles, the patient will see their skeleton in front of them and the software will immediately show them which part of their body they are moving wrongly. This means that you are able to monitor yourself using software. The different exercises will of course be discussed with the doctor in advance. “The patient must attend a suitably equipped practice and complete various tests. A suitable training program, which they must perform in the rehab centre, is then compiled for them,” says Pham. The appeal for the patient doesn’t just come from self-monitoring, it also comes from the gamification approach. Thanks to the VR goggles, you can even train in the jungle or slip on a Superman costume if you want to. There are hardly any limits on the options for your own avatar or the environment you’re in. “For example, you can stand on a balance pad and use the VR goggles to make you feel like you’re balancing on a rope or have to avoid items,” explains the doctor. When an exercise is completed, the imaginary audience applauds. It’s also conceivable that they will include an energy display that increases and decreases according to performance. The patient works from training level to training level using this principal.
The VR team
A game designer from the University of Hamburg was recently brought on board to help drive the gamification approach forward, and collaboration with a gaming company is also being considered. However, that alone doesn’t get the job done. The lion’s share of the programming work has been taken on by Hamburg company Absolute Software, with two programmers responsible for the VR project. Pham has secured one of the best-connected experts in the industry for his project, Oliver Rößling, who has helped bring to life formats such as 12min.me and nextReality:Hamburg. The program is being developed within the framework of the EU project “CROSS MOTION,” which has been networking the AV and videogames industry with business areas such as education, tourism and health since 2016. The team has been given plenty of support, however, there are still many challenges to overcome, “We have already used Absolute Software to digitalize Dr. Welsch’s training. However, we have to wait until the hardware and software for movement tracking are further improved – which will happen this year. It will then be possible for us to track in a way that has been unimaginable until recently,” says Pham.
Taher Pham, Luc Baracat (Game Designer, Deep learning), Arnaud Briche (VR Developer, Project Manager), Absolute Software GmbH. (photo: Konrad Lippert)
Rehab anytime, anywhere
The largest nut to crack for the young start-up will be the medicinal product certification, which is known for being expensive and having long waiting times of two to three years. Pham will need the certificate to later be recognized by health insurance companies. In a pinch, you can get around the certificate if you start outside of Germany. However, the Hamburger is still in good spirits and already looking to the future, “The hardware will dramatically minimize within the next six to twelve months. We are currently working on a small VR computer and camera that sit in front of you, and at some point, you should also be able to train on your own using this computer and headset at home or wherever you like. That’s particularly interesting when you consider that health insurance companies usually pay for five weeks of rehabilitation at a time.”
The team isn’t worried about competition at the moment. Companies launching rehabilitation software based on the same principals are a dime a dozen, however, they are not delivering medically-approved programs and they are miles from replacing real rehabilitation – unlike VReha Pro. It will take some time before it gets to that point, however, we are certain that we’ll be hearing more from this Hamburg start-up.