Multidisciplinary pilot project explored smart textiles and virtual reality in rehabilitation of stroke patients

The mc² – Mobile Cloud Computing group at Aalto University is doing experimental systems research on Virtual Reality (VR) and wearable sensing technologies. In a recent project with Kuopio University Hospital and Savonia University of Applied Science, they explored physical therapy as a potential application area. The idea was to create VR exergames and accompanying accessories for rehabilitation of stroke patients.

Members of the mc² group organised multiple workshops with rehabilitation professionals, in which they developed ideas for possible exercises and acquired feedback on prototypes. Physiotherapy students at Savonia also conducted a survey on the physical exercises used in occupational stroke rehabilitation and carried out an early user test with the exergame system developed in the project.

Two major prototype devices were built: a smart glove and a smart cushion. The glove measures finger bending and gripping force using velostat sensors while the cushion measures the leaning direction and degree of a sitting person. Both devices saw multiple prototype iterations with continuous improvement. The used sensor structures consist of soft materials with intermediate conducting wires leading to a copper wire connection going to the microcontroller. The VR exergame system was built using Unreal Engine 4.

Sensor glove
Prototype sensor glove. Uses piezo resistive velostat sensors (black).

The glove was utilised e.g. in an exercise in which the patient needs to reach out for ingredients while baking in virtual reality. An example of an exercise with the cushion involves shifting the weight in a sitting position to balance a raft floating across the sea. These and some other exercises are described in more detail in a Master’s thesis done in the mc² group.

The team has received funding from Business Finland to create a commercially viable VR exergame system for stroke patients. The experience and connections gained from the early system iterations and close collaboration with rehabilitation professionals laid a strong foundation to move the project to the next level. In addition to Savonia and Kuopio University Hospital, the mc² group has also started active collaboration with Helsinki University Hospital, which rehabilitates the largest number of stroke patients in Finland.