At The Disabilities Trust, we are always on the lookout for innovations that we can use in our work. Sometimes this involves stepping out of the ‘clinic and into the lab to work with researchers and develop these innovations.

A few weeks ago, we were finally able to have a COVID-19 safe visit from Dr Leon Watts and Dr Zack Lyons, two researchers from the University of Bath, who we were originally hoping to welcome back in February 2020!

Leon and Zack have been working with us for a number of years to develop a virtual learning environment that is engaging and also addresses some of the challenges we currently experience in brain injury rehabilitation. They bring technical expertise in human computer interaction and software development, and we bring our knowledge and experience in supporting people with brain injury to recover through rehabilitation.

We spent an afternoon taking stock of what we learned so far, stepping into our Virtual Reality Street a few times, and thinking where we could go next.

We discussed practical issues, such as whether virtual reality headsets work with glasses (they do!), how to address the possible challenges of walking around without being able to see one’s own feet, and the risks of cybersickness (a form of motion sickness that occurs as a result of exposure to immersive extended reality), but we also spent some time considering ‘bigger’ questions such as whether carrying out rehabilitation assessments and exercises in a virtual world might be more motivating than doing it in the real world, and why; to what extent the virtual world is similar to the real world, and to what extent learning in a virtual world could be transferred into the real world.

Dr Leon Watts said "As human computer interaction (HCI) researchers, we are committed to user-centred design. Our approach has always been to keep the therapist in the loop and in control in the interests of the service user. It is the only way a constructive therapeutic relationship can be supported, regardless of any technologies one might imagine. We have progressively developed an understanding of key ideas in neuropsychology, combining elements of social and cognitive demand to envision possible rehab. scenarios. Our collaboration has resulted in the design of a range of interactive rehabilitation activities that can be undertaken by service users in an immersive virtual world, with clinical oversight, whether for assessment or to foster the development of compensatory strategies. So, we have a solid interdisciplinary grounding upon which we are able to build new interactions that are relevant, repeatable, safe and engaging for service users."

Our main question for the day focused on understanding what further developments would be needed to make the virtual worlds we have developed so far into useful clinical tools. We’ve come up with some answers and a plan!... So hopefully we will have some more news to share in the not-too-distant future.

Waiting for the bus on Virtual Reality Street… With a “to do list” in sight. (Note. the view on the screen is a mirror image to what the wearer of the VR set sees.)

Chatting with another passenger

Demonstrating tele-transport in the virtual world. It is thought this feature may help reduce cybersickness