Client: Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics of the German Aerospace Center (DLR)

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.

a man wearing a virtual reality headset is immersed in a simulation

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.

a man wearing a VR headset is testing the setup with four other people looking at a laptop in the background

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.

two pictures of a man trying the system and smiling

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 platform.

user journey diagram

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.

Design of the user interface for therapists

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.

bird's eye view of the 3D environment

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 researcher.

Dr. Claudio Castellini, project leader at DLR

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.

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