The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is developing an innovative solution for the treatment of phantom limb pain using Virtual Reality therapy. With funding from the Helmholtz Research Agency, NEEEU was tasked with designing and building a Virtual Reality environment that would aid the therapy goals in a playful and engaging way.
We applied a human-centred process when designing the platform, adjusting and modifying the experience through empathetic lenses in collaboration with experts and patients. Given the chronic nature of phantom limb pain, the platform needed to be used by patients at regular intervals over a period of 6 weeks. From a design perspective, the user journey needed to span over the course of this whole treatment period. With this in mind, we introduced a sense of temporality and progression to the platform.
Rehabilitation therapy can feel repetitive and tiring. In order to sustain patient motivation over several sessions, we created an immersive setting filled with engaging activities. As therapists underlined that making the virtual experience feel too much like real life might cause emotional distress in some people, we maintained a degree of abstraction in the visual design of the 3D assets in general, and of the virtual limb in particular.
During the development of the platform, we developed several iterations of the prototypes to test different questions. For example, how intuitive is the interface for therapists? Which rehab exercises could be turned into Virtual Reality actions? And can we provide feedback about the success to both the patients and the therapists?
By using the custom interface, the therapists can monitor the signals from the sensors and guide the patients while the patients are immersed in the Virtual reality world doing the different exercises. All the data needed is visualised: the sensors measuring the muscle and nerve activity, the image the patients are seeing and how well the rehab exercises are being executed. The therapist can also guide the patients, choosing which exercises to do next and the level of difficulty.
The redesigned experience is being used by DLR researchers to conduct a statistical study in collaboration with therapists from different international institutions. Preliminary results show that our redesigned platform already speeds up the training of therapists and reduces the time needed to get patients comfortable with the system. The process is being trialled across multiple hospitals in Northern Italy.