Virtual reality and spinal cord injury


Dirk Haupt

Dirk Haupt is a masters student at UBC. For the final project of his Biomedical Engineering 554 class, he worked on a project to design a virtual environment to investigate how people with SCI perceive and use their hands in virtual reality. This is a summary of his project, which he did under the supervision of ICORD researchers Drs. Jaimie Borisoff and John Kramer.

Virtual reality and spinal cord injury: building an environment to examine sensorimotor function

Dirk at the Praxis Conference, April 2016

Dirk at the Praxis Conference, April 2016

The Oculus Rift is a Virtual Reality (VR) head-mounted display that lets a user see and interact within a virtual environment. The Leap Motion (LM) controller is a small peripheral that uses 2 infrared cameras to track a user’s hand movements at high enough resolutions to discern individual finger gestures. Our goal is to build a VR environment using the Oculus Rift to examine body representation and sensorimotor function after spinal cord injury (SCI). We are specifically interested in learning how individuals with SCI can assume ownership over VR arms and legs, and how characteristics of injury associated with perception and movement affect immersion in VR. VR has shown potential as a rehabilitation aid and the LM has been used to track hand tremors. Yet the specifics of hand motion, especially in people with limited hand function, has not been explored with VR.

Dirk Haupt BMEG554-2

Dirk presenting the app and concept for feedback to Virtual Hand, a Vancouver – San Francisco meetup group for Virtual Reality professionals

We were therefore interested in assessing whether we could create a VR environment that:

  1. Depicts a first person view of the body of a person with SCI: Including legs and arms/hands that are parameterized to create different sizes and shapes of hands; for instance, either representing the hands of a person with a disability (e.g. quadriplegia), or mapping the look of able-bodied hands in real time.
  2. Reacts appropriately to hand motion and doesn’t cause discomfort to someone with SCI: Little is known about the neuroscience of VR immersion and whether someone with impaired sensorimotor function will react similarly to an able-bodied person. For example, can the differences between pinch and grab functionality, as defined by the Graded Redefined Assessment of Strength, Sensibility and Prehension (GRASSP), be rendered with VR and LM?
  3. Is easily modifiable for future studies and applications: One example is an external sync / trigger capable of incorporating test equipment such as heat sources (for pain studies).
    Stimulus example for a VR scene might include a real-world heat source coupled with VR flame that can be configured in size and distance from the participant’s virtual hand.
Dirk Haupt BMEG554-1

Presenting the app and concept for feedback to Virtual Hand, a Vancouver – San Francisco meetup group for Virtual Reality professionals

Since the LM captures hand motion without any biometric input (no muscle tension information, only visual), it cannot accurately detect pinch or grab strength above some threshold. Since a microfilament touching the virtual hand will likely not elicit any sensation we have broadly mimicked only two items of prehension as done in GRASSP: grab and Cylindrical grasp and Tripod pinch. In our preliminary environment, virtual objects (representing bottles/pegboards) can be grabbed/pinched by the user and need to be assembled as a tower to broadly mimic the dexterity needed for a cup pour/peg placement. The program therefore has a pinch mode where objects can only be picked up when the index finger and the thumb are near each other which is registered as a pinch. In grab mode, all four fingers (and optionally the thumb) must make contact with an object for it to be picked up. In each tower assembly trial, there is an optional time limit that can be imposed.

Contact Dirk for more information.


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4 thoughts on “Virtual reality and spinal cord injury

  1. I am a T-9 paraplegic. I am looking for more information on how to get involved with these studies. Is it possible to purchase the VR programs and the head gear? This research may not be evolved to that level yet, just inquiring. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You!


  2. Hello,

    My brother is a a full quadriplegic. He does not have use of his hands/arms. He can move his shoulders and his head. He currently uses Dragon Dictate to control his PC.

    Will he be able to use this virtual reality headset? Can it coexist with Dragon dicatate or other voice controlled software?

    Thank you,

  3. Hi again! Here is a message from Dirk:
    “If you can move around your neck you will be able to see everything there is to see in VR space. I’m not familiar with how well Dragon Dicate works, but if it can be used to allow the user a comfortable playing experience with any 3D game that involves both mouse movement for perspective and keyboard input (for example, A Story of my Uncle) then virtual reality should pose no problem, regardless of the headset used.”

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