Creator of Worlds

Dr. Karen Chen and her research team share with CW22 TV how they create virtual reality environments to improve the way healthcare patients will recover from injury

When you hear the phrase “virtual reality (VR)”, most people think of video games, science fiction movies, and smartphone apps. Although entertainment is the usual entry point, the world of VR continues to expand into the way we live our daily lives. Dr. Karen Chen, ISE assistant professor in human-systems engineering, and her research team sat down with the CW22’s Bill LuMaye to discuss how they are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to improve the rehabilitation process for people recovering from injury.

VR vs. AR. What is the Difference?

Cave Automatic Virtual Environment

Virtual reality is a computer-generated graphical space that allows users to experience various environments. “VR allows users to travel to a medieval village, walk on the top of a tall building, or teleport to an orbiting space station,” explained Dr. Karen Chen. “It’s all aimed at creating an interactive and immersive experience,” added Tyler Rose, ISE graduate student and member of Dr. Chen’s research team.

Augmented reality superimposes computer-generated graphics on top of a physical environment. “In other words, the objects seen in the real world are now ‘augmented’ with more information provided by AR technology,” said Dr. Chen. “That’s the difference. The environment is real, not generated by a computer,” added Ken Chen, ISE Ph.D. student and fellow research team member.

Using VR/AR to Improve Healthcare

Dr. Chen and her team are working to take VR/AR into the healthcare system as well as occupational safety. “The goal is to improve the health and well-being of a wider range of populations,” she explained.

“In traditional healthcare, some patients don’t like or are unable to interact with their doctor or therapist,” shared Ken Chen. “If we can develop the technology, they will be able to do their rehabilitation at home using the VR/AR devices.” Another advantage to using VR is that it helps to keep the patients engaged more because it presents the task in an interactive, game-like environment compared to a doctor’s office.

Dr. Chen believes that VR/AR will play a larger role in occupational training as well. Workers can follow directions and instructions that they receive in the virtual reality environment that can be more intuitive than a pamphlet or book-based training instructions.

“We see it in industries where there is more musculoskeletal risk,” said Rebecca Ellis, ISE graduate student and team member. We can do VR/AR training where we see a risk for low back or shoulder injury. This will increase the safety for both new workers learning the tasks as well as people that are rehabbing from an injury. So it’s not just taking care of those who have injured, but also preventing the injury itself.”

Advantages of virtual reality include flexibility and cost. Because it is programmable, the team can design the environment to meet the specific needs of the individual patient. “If a patient needs to perform an upper body rehab task like reaching up and taking a book off of the shelf, I don’t have to go out and buy a book and a bookshelf,” pointed out Dr. Chen. “I can program them into the VR environment.”

The VR/AR Laboratory

Community Matters on the CW22

The main attraction of Dr. Chen’s VR/AR lab is the room-sized cube known as a cave automatic virtual environment or CAVE. It has three rear-projected screens on the left, front, and right as well as the floor. Behind each screen are a 3D projector and a large mirror. The 3D images are projected onto the mirrors that are then reflected onto the screens. The advantage of the rear-projecting system is that it does not cast the shadow of the user onto the other screens.

The tracking cameras, located around the top of the cave, determine the user’s location by following the tracking markers on the user’s 3D glasses. This allows the projectors to cast the images on the screens based on the user’s perspective. “Think of a 3D movie where you may be sitting in the corner and the visuals don’t look great because it’s not from your perspective,” explained Dr. Chen. “But inside the cave, the user’s location is known so the 3D images can be projected based on the user’s location.” With the addition of body markers, the team can also study the user’s body movement within the virtual environment.

What is Next?

As the cost of virtual reality devices continues to come down and the technology progresses, Dr. Chen hopes to give a greater number of people access to healthcare within the next decade. This is true for patients with mobility issues or live in remote locations. “I don’t think this will ever replace your doctor,” said Dr. Chen. “But it will give both physicians and patients more options for giving and receiving quality care in real time.”

Watch Dr. Chen and her team on the CW22s Community Matters