Funding Optimization Project

Virtual Reality Could Offer Personalized Approach to Fall Prevention

Virtual Reality Could Offer Personalized Approach to Fall Prevention

Researcher: Dr. Grant Handrigan
Affiliation: Université de Moncton

Dr. Grant Handrigan, a Professor of Kinesiology at the Université de Moncton, calls fall prevention a “stubborn problem.”

Educational programs to boost balance and agility just aren’t reaching enough older adults and people with disabilities. There’s also more to prevention than improving muscle strength and coordination. Fear of falling can cause people who are already at risk to avoid activities that would help them avoid injury, such as walking or climbing stairs.

Dr. Handrigan believes that virtual reality could enable a kind of “exposure therapy.” In the virtual world, people at risk of falling could safely confront challenging situations and learn to navigate them. Then they could face real-world scenarios with more confidence.

So the theory goes. But practically speaking, virtual reality doesn’t appeal to everyone. Before healthcare providers start rolling out VR fall prevention programs, they need more insight to identify the people who will benefit most from a tech-enabled approach.

Recent research, led by Niousha Parsa, a student that Dr. Handrigan works with, validates tools for identifying people who are likely to respond positively to VR training. It’s a small step toward innovation that could make a big difference to vulnerable New Brunswickers.


Who’s game for VR?

Dr. Handrigan recalls the first time he experienced virtual reality. He tried virtual downhill skiing and after doing a big jump, he felt his stomach drop. Immediately he realized the potential this type of technology could have in fall prevention research.

Through support from ResearchNB, Niousha Parsa, now a medical student at the University of Ottawa, designed and conducted a study to screen for traits that make someone likely to have a similarly visceral response to VR. Forty participants completed a balancing task, walking on a beam at height, in both a real environment and a virtual environment (VE).

Before entering the VE, participants completed a questionnaire on their “immersive tendencies” (IT). People with strong IT easily get caught up in a book or a movie. If you’re the type who watches a film on the edge of your seat, then you’d likely score high on IT.

After they left the VE, participants completed a second questionnaire to rate their level of “presence” in the virtual world. Someone who experiences a high level of presence finds the VE very life-like. They have the sensation of being in a physical space.

A third questionnaire asked participants to rate the level of simulator sickness (motion sickness) they experienced in the VE.


Toward the future of fall prevention

The questionnaires on immersive tendencies and presence effectively predicted people who would benefit from VR training. Dr. Handrigan envisions these tools being used in “optimizing” future fall prevention programs. Knowing who is likely to respond well to VR will enable practitioners to choose the best approach for the person.

Indeed, personalization could become the future of fall prevention. Explains Dr. Handrigan, “These are complex situations with a lot of different factors at play. There’s no one real solution. And if we’re going to have an impact, I think it’s about tailoring the possible solutions to the individual.”