An Athlone-based PhD candidate is exploring the use of augmented reality (AR) to cure people of walk abnormalities which, if left untreated, can lead to 'wear and tear' arthritis and serious injuries.

Thiago Braga Rodrigues, a Brazilian biomedical engineer studying at Athlone Institute of Technology, is flipping traditional rehabilitation therapies on their head with an innovative technology-led approach that empowers patients.

“Traditionally, patients are given guided feedback in a clinical setting which requires the presence of an expert to inform the rehabilitation or retraining. It can also necessitate a patient travel many times to and from a clinic,” he explains.

Complementary therapy

As a complementary therapy, Braga Rodrigues is using AR smart glasses to help patients correct their walk abnormalities. His goal is to help patients better understand and react to feedback so that they can improve their gait in the comfort of their own home.

AR is an immersive mixed-reality technology, synonymous with apps like Instagram and Snapchat, that superimposes static and moving images on a real-world environment.

Thiago Braga Rodrigues, a Brazilian biomedical engineer studying at Athlone Institute of Technology

Braga Rodrigues has adapted the technology so that patients wearing smart glasses see a series of projected circles in their field of vision; if their legs are correctly aligned as they walk, the centre-aligned circle will flash blue. The objective is to try to keep the circle blue for the duration of each session.

“I’m using AR in combination with a wearable sensor system to detect specific gait variables and process them to gain an understanding of a patient’s gait within typical threshold values,” he says. “If a patient is outside of those thresholds, I can use AR to teach the patient how to adapt their gait technique in real time.”

Effective method of gait rehabilitation

This real-time visual feedback, powered by AR, is proving an effective method of gait rehabilitation as it significantly reduces the number of knee misalignments which, in turn, reduces injury incidence.

Feedback is critical to all types of rehabilitation and is a powerful tool for motor skill learning. It helps patients process, organise, and interpret sensory perceptual information required to perform or learn a skill.

Braga Rodrigues’ research, which is also concerned with users’ quality of experience (QoE), found that patients surveyed also rated AR more highly than other forms of feedback. Patients reported that they found it easier to adjust their gait while seeing visual cues than they did from feeling them.

Haptic feedback (vibrations) is delivered directly to the leg that the patient needs to adjust; with AR feedback, visual cues are what prompt the change. Overall, AR was found to be a highly effective method for reducing gait misalignment and improving walking style.

'Only starting to be explored'

The Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) researcher says that the technology’s potential is only starting to be explored. “The potential of AR as a portable, wearable and visual piece of technology is under-researched and certainly worth investigating further,” he says. “It has a wide range of applications and is capable of augmenting human performance in a variety of ways.”

Now in the final write-up phase of his research, Braga Rodrigues has just had his paper on the use of immersive mixed reality technology in correcting walk abnormalities accepted to one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The PhD candidate calls the PLOS One publication his “greatest achievement” to date.

According to PhD supervisor Dr Niall Murray, who is a leading researcher in the field of immersive technologies and a Science Foundation Ireland funded investigator in ADAPT and CONFIRM, this is a “significant milestone” for Braga Rodrigues as he enters the final stages of his postgraduate studies.

“Having a paper accepted to a multidisciplinary journal like PLOS One with its impact factor and H5 index is a great achievement,” he says, adding, “the fact that PLOS One is an open access journal also means that his research will be easily accessible to the research community and general public.”

Breaking down barriers

Pioneering in its approach, the academic journal makes papers available to the public for free immediately upon publication. This open access model has been lauded for breaking down barriers to knowledge dissemination and ensuring equal access to information.

“The open access model is important as it makes research available to the scientific community in a timely, open manner,” says Braga Rodrigues. “I am delighted to have my first Quality of Experience (QoE) paper published in PLOS One.”

The PhD candidate, whose research is funded by the Irish Research Council of Ireland, came to AIT from Harvard Medical School, US, where he studied biomechanics and bioinformatics.

“The PhD structure and the modules I undertook throughout the duration of my studies have really helped me further my academic career and enhance my skillset,” he says.

“I’m extremely grateful to my supervisors, Dr Niall Murray (AIT), Dr Ciarán Ó Catháin (AIT) and Prof Noel O’Connor (DCU), for their unending support, guidance and expertise.”

Soon to be graduating with his doctorate, Braga Rodrigues has taken up a post as a lecturer within the Faculty of Engineering and Informatics at AIT.

Thiago Braga Rodrigues’ paper, entitled A Quality of Experience assessment of haptic and augmented reality feedback modalities in a gait analysis system, is now available to the public.