A group of European researchers are developing a brain-computer interface to help disabled people manipulate a virtual world.
After having a healthy volunteer test the system, the researchers asked a man paralyzed almost entirely from the neck down to try it out.
He was asked to walk up to different virtual characters and wait for each character to say hello. The subject was able to do so about 90% of the time.
“The patient loved it,” says Doron Friedman, a member of the UCL group, and now at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya in Israel. “He said it was a great feeling to think about moving his feet and to actually ‘move’.”
Friedman notes that virtual reality is becoming a popular tool for physical or psychological rehabilitation, and says the new system could offer novel possibilities.
Virtual reality provides a controlled environment in which patients can perceive themselves performing any manner of task. It also offers a way to stimulate the brain without requiring physical movement. For example, researchers at the UK’s University of Manchester are (see Using virtual reality to treat phantom limb pain).
“A system such as this could be very motivational for a patient to use for training,” says Jessica Bayliss at Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, US, who also specialises in brain-computer interfaces and virtual reality. “It reminds me of how people with various handicaps are playing World of Warcraft, because they are able to do things in the virtual world that they can’t do in the real world.