A headset and a special glove create a virtual world for the stroke patient
A revolutionary technique developed in Northern Ireland could help stroke patients regain the use of their arms and hands.
The virtual reality system offers people the chance to practise moving their upper limbs in a way which is more stimulating than carrying out boring repetitive tasks.
The virtual world - accessed with a special computer headset and a large flexible glove - can be created specifically to mimic a kitchen, living room or supermarket scenario with which the patient is familiar.
It offers practice in movements needed to carry out chores as simple as making a cup of tea.
The idea was developed by researchers at the University of Ulster - working across the Schools of Rehabilitation Sciences and Computing and Information Engineering - alongside staff from the stroke unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
A pilot study involving a small number of patients has now been launched.
Jacqueline Crosbie, from the University of Ulster, said this was an exciting project which was unique in the UK and Ireland.
"We are hopeful that this new form of rehabilitation therapy will considerably improve the quality of life for people with stroke," she said.
"Different virtual worlds provide rich environments to relieve the boredom of practising what can often be repetitive and frustrating tasks.
"The system can also be configured to exaggerate small movements, increasing the feeling of achievement and improving patient motivation."
The new technology will involve the patient wearing a head-mounted display which provides a sense of immersion into a virtual world and a flexible glove which provides feedback to the patient and can also act as an "audio physiotherapist".
Ms Crosbie said that out of the 80% of people who survive a stroke, between 30-66% will not regain use of their affected arm.
This may be explained by the fact that current rehabilitation therapy largely concentrates on getting the patient mobile so that they can return home as soon as possible.
She said that considerably less time was spent on encouraging arm and hand activities and it was also likely that the hospital environment might not provide sufficient stimulation for the patient to carry out arm and hand tasks independently.
The project was made possible through funding from the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association.