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New Haptics Systems Challenge Stroke Patients to Grasp, Pinch, Squeeze, Throw and, Yeah, Get Pushy

New Haptics Systems Challenge Stroke Patients to Grasp, Pinch, Squeeze, Throw and, Yeah, Get Pushy
Younbo Jung, left, reaches out to touch objects in a virtual environment he sees in his goggles, while fellow researcher Shih-Ching Yeh, right, steadies the cable connection.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 — A 50-year-old female stroke survivor, wearing stereoscopic goggles, clutches the handle of a stylus like a pen and twists her wrist to move a small ball through a maze-like tube on her computer screen. She feels resistance in her hand, and sees the ball turn colors, when she bumps against the side of the tube.

A researcher holds a robotic force-feed device, called a PHANToM, to move balls around in a virtual environment without bumping into other booby traps on the screen.

To avoid another collision, she tightens her grasp on the force-feedback stylus, carefully rotates her right wrist, and pushes the ball through the tube. A menu bar at the top of the screen displays her scores, revealing how much time and force was exerted to complete the task.

Another stroke survivor, an 80-year-old man, holds a ball the size of an apricot in his impaired left hand, which he rotates in this virtual environment in order to place one set of blocks on top of another set. He doesn’t “feel” the blocks touch each other, but his wrist movements are being tracked and precisely measured. The measurements will help his physical therapist gauge the difficulty level of his next therapy session.

Stroke patients like these, who face months of tedious rehabilitation to recover function in affected limbs, are benefiting from the rise of haptics technologies – interfaces that add the sense of touch to virtual computer environments. Like computer games, virtual therapeutic environments can be vastly more entertaining than traditional rehabilitation and custom-designed to target specific motor skills in each patient, like grasping, squeezing, pushing and rotating the wrist.

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