Background: The relearning of movements after brain injury can be optimized by providing intensive, meaningful, and motivating training using virtual reality (VR). However, most current solutions use two-dimensional (2D) screens, where patients interact via symbolic representations of their limbs (e.g., a cursor). These 2D screens lack depth cues, potentially deteriorating movement quality and increasing cognitive load. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) have great potential to provide naturalistic movement visualization by incorporating improved depth cues, reduce visuospatial transformations by rendering movements in the space where they are performed, and preserve eye-hand coordination by showing an avatar – with immersive VR (IVR) – or the user’s real body – with augmented reality (AR). However, elderly populations might not find these novel technologies usable, hampering potential motor and cognitive benefits.
Methods: We compared movement quality, cognitive load, motivation and system usability in twenty elderly participants (>59 y.o.) while performing a dual motor-cognitive task with different visualization technologies: IVR HMD, AR HMD, and a 2D screen. We evaluated participants’ self-reported cognitive load, motivation, and usability using questionnaires. We also conducted a pilot study with five brain-injured patients comparing the visualization technologies while using an assistive device.
Results: Elderly participants performed straighter, shorter duration, and smoother movements when the task was visualized with the HMDs than screen. The IVR HMD led to shorter duration movements than AR, and both HMDs were associated with shorter movement duration than the screen. Movement onsets were shorter with IVR than AR, and shorter for both HMDs than the screen, potentially indicating facilitated reaction times due to reduced cognitive load. No differences were found in the questionnaires regarding cognitive load, motivation, or usability between technologies in elderly participants. Both HMDs proved high usability in our small sample of patients.
Conclusions: HMDs are a promising technology to be incorporated into neurorehabilitation, as their more naturalistic movement visualization improves movement quality compared to conventional screens. HMDs demonstrate high usability, without decreasing participants’ motivation, and might potentially lower cognitive load. Our preliminary clinical results suggest that brain-injured patients may especially benefit from more immersive technologies. However, larger patient samples are needed to draw stronger conclusions.