Anyone who has ever had to undergo physical rehabilitation can attest to the monotony of treadmill — “dreadmill” — training. But what if researchers were able to design an effective physical therapy regimen that was engaging too?

SimCity meets physical therapy is one of the goals of Dr. Christopher Rhea, director of the new Virtual Environment for Assessment and Rehabilitation (VEAR) Laboratory. In a lab equipped with a “slip-trip” treadmill, cameras, computers and ample empty space, Rhea and his students are able to create virtual worlds, replicating real-life situations to help patients rehabilitate injuries, disease or the effects of aging.

The virtual atmosphere gives clinicians “a more precise, optimal way to rehabilitate someone,” said Rhea, an assistant professor of kinesiology in the UNCG School of Health and Human Sciences. It also adds a level of sport to the process with its video game feel. “It may seem like a game to you, but really what we’re doing is giving you a very scientific prescription to rehabilitate yourself. We’re building into the environment the movements you’re lacking.”

Rhea and his staff are able to build 2-D and 3-D environments for patient rehabilitation. In one example, movement patterns from a healthy participant are recorded, transposed into an avatar and projected onto a large screen. By following in the avatar’s footsteps, a patient replicates and practices a proper walking pattern.

Rhea can also create an immersive virtual reality environment in 3-D, such as a busy sidewalk scene where the patient will be able to practice the movements necessary to weave in and around pedestrian traffic.

The VEAR Lab’s niche focus on physical rehabilitation makes it unique. There are less than 10 other labs like it in the United States, Rhea said. And the opportunities for collaboration with researchers around the world are vast. Already Rhea is collaborating with faculty at UNCG who study anterior cruciate ligament knee injuries, faculty at Winston-Salem State University who work with children with cerebral palsy, researchers at Bradford University in England who focus on therapy for patients with leg amputations, and with clinicians at UNC Chapel Hill on rehabilitation for stroke patients.

The flexibility of virtual reality allows for the creation of a wide range of rehabilitative therapies. “You can build whatever you want in virtual reality,” Rhea said. “That’s the beauty of virtual reality.”

Rhea doesn’t believe virtual reality therapies will ever replace traditional physical therapy. Rather, physical therapists will be able to offload a portion of the training aspect to avatars, ultimately allowing the physical therapists to oversee more patients. “We envision this type of virtual reality training not only provides a specific prescription for walking rehabilitation, but could also allow physical therapists to be more efficient in providing care to their patients,” he said.

Long term, once successful virtual reality therapies have been designed, Rhea dreams of downsizing the experience from a lab setting to one that’s more affordable and accessible, like a disc you can pop into a gaming system such as the Nintendo Wii or the Microsoft Kinect. “There are very few clinics in the county that can afford a third of a million dollar lab,” he said. “We’re keeping our eye on how to make this clinic friendly.”

Photography by Christopher English, University Relations