A virtual reality platform that allows stroke survivors to interact remotely with rehabilitation therapists encourages significant participation and helps boost upper extremity function, a new proof-of-concept investigation has found.

Virtual Environment for Rehabilitative Gaming Exercises combines software and Kinect motion-sensor hardware to track the movements of patient and therapist in separate locations. Exercises include hitting a virtual ball back and forth with multiple users, or bouncing it off a wall when in single-user mode.

The 20 stroke survivors who tested the interactive system attended 99% of their therapy sessions when in multi-user mode and 89% of sessions in single-user mode. After four weeks, they had recovered upper extremity function comparable to what would be expected in a conventional clinic setting, reported biomedical engineer Derek Kamper, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University.

Multi-user mode appeared to be particularly engaging. Participants spent 22% more time – or an additional 7.6 minutes – in their sessions when in that mode compared with single-user mode. That time was also more active, with participants moving their hands about 415 meters per session during multi-user sessions, as compared to 327 meters during single-user sessions.

“This suggests that the social aspect of VERGE has real benefits for stroke survivors in the context of getting them engaged in therapy,” Kamper said.

The study team plans to test the technology in larger populations before making recommendations for clinical use, Kamper said. Beyond stroke rehabilitation, he foresees the approach being used to encourage older adults to exercise and make social connections.

The study was published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.