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UW Undergraduate’s Research Leads to Invention of Technology for Telerehabilitation

October 28, 2022
Two people, one with virtual reality goggles
Qin “Arthur” Zhu, a professor in the UW Division of Kinesiology and Health, helps a student participant, Yunda Huang, navigate a virtual-reality device to be used in telerehabilitation. (UW Photo)

Working in a University of Wyoming lab six years ago, undergraduate computer science student Russell Todd, of Baggs, sought to merge a state-of-the-art virtual-reality system with a cutting-edge motion-capture system to understand human-computer interaction.

Little did Todd know at the time, but he and his colleagues in the Perception-Action-Cerebral-Executive (PACE) lab would not only help create a breakthrough telerehabilitation technology -- which could be used to treat and rehabilitate patients remotely -- but Todd himself would co-found a startup company to market this technology in diverse health sectors throughout Wyoming.

Starting in 2017, research support provided by the Wyoming Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), Wyoming IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) and the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium enabled Todd to work with Qin “Arthur” Zhu, a professor in the UW Division of Kinesiology and Health in the College of Health Sciences, to explore the possibility of integrating an electromagnetic-based motion-capture system with a virtual reality (VR) system. The goal was to render VR interaction with real-time motion-tracking capability to study the effects of 3D visual illusion on reach-to-grasp movement in an immersive VR environment.

Their efforts resulted in a software program receiving a registered copyright titled “Software Rendering Real-time Motion Tracking Using Body-attached Sensors in Virtual Reality,” and a just-granted patent, “Motion Tracking Synchronization in Virtual Reality Spaces,” through the UW Technology Transfer Office.

Many health care providers and their patients in Wyoming and other rural states have found that using telehealth to assess and treat patients can replace or minimize traveling long distances, especially during winter. The opportunity of telerehabilitation emerged with the technology created by Todd and his research team. A therapist now has the tools to examine and monitor a patient virtually -- interacting with the patient in real time while receiving augmented information regarding the quality and function of the patient movement.

“It is unusual and remarkable for Russell, an undergraduate student in computer science, to step out of his comfort zone and work with me, a faculty member in kinesiology, on a research project that is transdisciplinary and meaningful for human health,” Zhu says. “I enjoyed working with a student who also is a collaborator, because great ideas often emerge with shared interest and joint effort.”

In 2018, MoVE LLC was founded with Zhu as president and co-founder, along with Todd as chief technology officer and co-founder. A year later, Derek Smith, an associate professor and director of the Division of Kinesiology and Health, also joined MoVE as CEO.

“Working with Dr. Zhu has been a transformative experience, and I certainly attribute the explosive growth of MoVE to his incredible work ethic,” Todd says. “It’s one thing for me to stitch together several emerging technologies to make something novel, but it took the bolt of lightning that is Dr. Zhu to bring that creation to life.”

The journey of creating and implementing their telerehabilitation system -- to assess and treat patients with injury or other impediments to physical movement -- was an involved process with support of the university, as well as regional and national funding agencies. A progression of research projects and their funding sources leading up the final product include: 

-- 2018: A project titled “Real-time Motion Tracking in 3D Immersive Virtual Reality for Tele-Rehabilitation” was funded by the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.

-- 2019: A project titled “Validating a Novel System with Real-time Interaction and Motion Tracking in Immersive VR for Telerehabilitation” was funded by Wyoming INBRE and a CTR-IN: Developmental Translational Team Grant.

-- 2020: A project titled “Developing Real-time Interaction and Motion Tracking in Immersive Virtual Reality for Telerehabilitation” was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Minority and Health Disparities through a Small Business Technology Transfer grant.

two people standing with equipment
UW student Russell Todd, of Baggs, and Qin “Arthur” Zhu, a professor in the Division of Kinesiology and Health, showcase their virtual-reality project.

-- 2020: A project titled “Accelerated Telerehabilitation Infrastructure and Clinical Viability” was funded by the U.S. Department of the Treasury through the Wyoming Health and Bioscience Innovation Hub.

-- 2021: Research findings from 2017-18 projects were published in Proceedings of IEEE VR, 2021 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces, titled “Temporal Availability of Ebbinghaus Illusions on Perceiving and Interacting with 3D Objects in a Contextual Virtual Environment.”

While commercial availability of the telerehabilitation system to physical therapists and their patients here in Wyoming is still a way off, Todd, Zhu and Smith are confident that, as progress continues, models of the application of this telerehabilitation system will be available for public dissemination soon. This will be one step closer to providing physical therapists throughout Wyoming with advanced tools for rehabilitation treatment they need to provide care for face-to-face visits in the clinic.

Now, as a doctoral student co-mentored by Amy Banic, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Zhu in kinesiology and health, Todd is continuing his research to explore ways of integrating VR with other sensor technologies so that the developed technology can widely serve those stakeholders of telehealth. Correspondingly, MoVE LLC is in its second round of fundraising for continuous research and development, as well as commercialization of its product.   

About the College of Health Sciences

UW’s College of Health Sciences trains health and wellness professionals and researchers in a wide variety of disciplines, including medicine, nursing, pharmacy, communication disorders, social work, kinesiology, community and public health, and disability studies.

The college also oversees residency and fellowship programs in Casper and Cheyenne, as well as operating primary care and speech/hearing clinics in Laramie, Casper and Cheyenne. With more than 1,600 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, the college is dedicated to training the health and wellness workforce of Wyoming and conducting high-quality research and community engagement, with a particular focus on rural and frontier populations.

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