Client: Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics of the German Aerospace
Helping DLR redesign phantom limb pain treatment
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is developing an innovative solution
for the treatment of phantom limb pain. Within the framework of the
VVITA project funded by the Helmholtz Research Agency, NEEEU was
commissioned to design and build a Virtual Reality environment that
would aid the therapy goals in a playful way.
Phantom limb pain is pain that seems to come from a part of the body
that is no longer present. A majority of people with amputated limbs
will experience some form of phantom limb pain. Unfortunately,
existing treatments show limited results.
To tackle this medical challenge, a team of researchers (Claudio
Castellini, Markus Nowak, and Christian Nissler) at the Institute of
Robotics and Mechatronics of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has
been pioneering a promising new technique. VVITA uses virtual reality
and muscle sensors to bring relief to patients by letting them control
a digital hand in a virtual space.
NEEEU was initially commissioned to expand the existing virtual
environment and come up with new activities for patients to perform in
VR. What started as a simple environment and interaction design task
quickly turned into a larger reflection on the therapeutic process.
More than a mere interactive tool, we made it our mission to design a
journey of healing.
A journey of healing
We applied a human-centered process in redesigning the platform,
redesigning the experience through empathetic lenses in collaboration
with experts and patients.
Given the chronic nature of phantom limb pain, the platform will be
used at regular intervals by the patients over a period of 6 weeks.
Therefore the user journey needed to span over the course of the whole
treatment. We introduced a sense of temporality and progression to the
We paid particular attention to creating a user experience that was
supportive and empowering for the patient. For example, we observed
that people need some time to understand the process and the system’s
workings. We divided the therapeutic process into a series of steps,
starting with getting the patient familiar with the VR headset before
they wear it.
Similarly, the redesigned therapist user interface encourages an
ongoing conversation between therapist and patient to negotiate the
rehabilitation steps together. In fact, we gave the therapist the
possibility to customize at any time each therapy session introducing
new gestures, choosing different activities and unlocking new areas of
the virtual world.
Virtual world and activities
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.
The virtual world was built around the medical concept that performing
everyday actions can provide a strong motivation during rehabilitation
therapy. A house with a garden made for a perfect setting for
interactions that range from habitual actions (e.g.: cooking) to
physical games (e.g.: playing the drums). We also hid some fun easter
eggs, will you be able to find them?
Results and impact
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.
This prototype is getting much more usable by anyone, not only the
Thanks to the increased variety of activities we brought to the VVITA
platform, therapists can now choose activities that target specific
muscles. This training helps the patient prepare to control a robotic
limb without bearing the cost and weight of a physical prosthetic.
VVITA already offered a reliable solution built upon affordable
off-the-shelf hardware. Now with increased usability and great
interaction design, VVITA is getting a step closer to a commercial
application that will truly democratize rehabilitation.