A Real Game Changer: How Virtual Reality Is Helping Amputees

Whilst commonly associated with gaming, Virtual Reality has many other uses – like benefiting the growing number of amputees.


Did you make yourself a coffee this morning? Crack an egg for breakfast? Scratch your back? Cross your legs as you sat down at your desk? For some people, the simple movements we take for granted aren’t possible but thanks to advances in assistive technologies and AI-enabled prosthetics, it soon could be.

There’s over 5,000 amputations taking place each year in the UK alone and a staggering 185,000 in the US, with over 1.6 million people living with limb loss in the United States alone. This is a staggering number of people who could potentially benefit from the combination of technologies that are shaping the world of prostheses.

Whilst commonly associated with gaming, Virtual Reality has many other uses – like benefiting the growing number of amputees. ‘The Imagine Project’ when hosted at Sheffield Hallam University sparked a collaboration between specialists from different fields including games developer Ivan Phelan who works with the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality hardware. The group set its mind to looking into how the immersive experience of Virtual Reality could benefit amputees by combining it with prosthetics.

Wearing the Oculus Rift and using the limb in a virtual imitation of the real world, amputees using prosthetics are able to overcome many difficulties found in the adjustment process. VR allows users to practice what muscles they will need to use and when – after not using them for an extended period of time. By learning how to use the prosthesis, VR is also giving users the confidence to take the limb out into the real world quicker and more efficiently than before.

The Oculus Rift VR works through placing a Myo armband at the end of the amputated limb, which then reads the muscle activity in the appendage. These signals are then transposed into the virtual limb shown on the Oculus headset. Real life settings are programmed into the VR software so users can get to grips with applying pressure, dexterity and depth perception.

There are hopes to roll this tech out across the NHS and the benefits are vast for both users and medical professionals. The technology would cut down on appointments and unnecessary travel to hospitals, not to mention quicker learning times, shorter adjustment periods and an improved quality of life for thousands of people.

Later this year we will be seeing the commercial release of the revolutionary ‘Luke’ arm – named after the cybernetic hand given to the Jedi master himself after his infamous duel with Darth Vader.

The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded prosthetic, developed by inventor Dean Kamen can be installed mid forearm, upper arm or shoulder and functions via a brain-computer interface, using electrodes on the amputated arm to function according to the user’s muscle signals, as well as having grip force feedback. The force sensors in the fingers and the four independent motors built into the hand will let users grip anything, a life-changing addition to prosthetics. The ‘human’ element to prosthetics is missing from the current, unyielding artificial limbs. Prosthetic users may find tasks requiring greater levels of dexterity and grip challenging with the types of prosthetics currently on the market – often clunky, with little or no movement capabilities.

Whilst there are plans in place for the commercial sale of the Luke arm, it is military funded. 6% of wounded US Military have lost a limb and the Veterans Administration have over 40,000 amputees receiving healthcare services through them alone so the prosthetic is set to help a staggering number of people. Although the retail price has not yet been released, it is rumored to be comfortably around the $100,000 mark, so there is still some time yet until we see this technology benefiting the masses.

The advances we’re seeing are set to have a real impact on many lives and these technologies are helping many other areas of disability, not just limb loss. With commercial and healthcare releases drawing closer for these advanced prosthetics, we’re definitely about to witness a revolutionary change in assistive technologies. 

Matt Reaney is the Founder of Big Cloud. Specialists in Big Data recruitment - connecting innovative organisations with the best talent in Data Analytics and Data Science.

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