An exhibition at the Sheffield Museum in England called “Body and Mind – Virtual Reality Prosthetics” is exploring what it’s like to live the everyday challenges and responsibilities of life without a limb using VR.
The experience, created by a team of researchers from Sheffield Hallam University, lets non-amputees understand the hardships of losing a limb and how to adapt to wearing a prosthetic.
More prominently, it helps amputees learn to use their new prosthetics limbs. One must train to use an electronic prosthetic. Making your muscles understand by contracting them to open and close your hands take a lot of time to learn. This training takes place as they are placed in a virtual kitchen to interact with appliances. For example putting a kettle on the stovetop or picking up apples and smashing plates.
Testing these reflexes can take even more time and be difficult for someone who has never had that specific limb. They would not know how to use those muscles. VR not only makes this training easier and faster, but also adds an emotional value as patients get to see their lost limb in place again.
Phantom Pain Treatment
VR prosthetics also helps reduce phantom pain. Before VR, solutions for phantom pain were very low tech. Doctors would use a mirror to reflect the image of an intact limb in the position of the missing limb to reduce the pain. VR pulls the same trick more convincingly. The brain sends the motor command to the hand to open or close, the eyes tell the brain the virtual hand is opening and closing, and spacial awareness tells the subject where the arm is located in space. This enables the brain to embody the virtual limb, thus reducing the pain.
Finally, the exhibition is a great way to learn how the design and use of prosthetics have changed throughout history. You can try on a variety of them and even design your own.
It’s always interesting to see how VR is changing the medical field. Prosthetics have been around for thousands of years, yet the industry only started to see innovation after the return of thousands of injured soldiers during World War 1 and 2. Sculptors and engineers started working together to create more realistic and comfortable limbs. VR is pushing progress even further now by training the brain to assimilate to a range of new realities using virtual limbs.