Virtual Reality Grocery Store: Help for Balance Disorders

March 4, 2009
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Researchers from the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences (Pitt) and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) recently released findings from a study on balance at the midwinter meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology. The study was funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Led by Sue Whitney, PhD, a physical therapist at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Services and a researcher at the Medical Virtual Reality Center, the study used a life-size video game to help people with balance disorders learn to maneuver through grocery store aisles without feeling anxious or dizzy.

In the Virtual Reality Grocery Store, three-dimensional images of a store’s aisles, with their shelves stocked, are projected onto three screens that surround a real shopping cart on a custom-built treadmill. The person operating the cart controls his/her own speed and direction of travel while walking up and down 18 “aisles” that present progressive degrees of difficulty.

The reported findings of the study, which is still ongoing, involved 11 patients with balance disorders who participated in the Virtual Reality Grocery Store trial for 6 weekly sessions. They went through a series of balance and mobility tests and self-reported surveys before and after participating. After 6 weeks, most patients improved in every test taken.

The ongoing trial will compare Virtual Reality Grocery Store treatment with traditional physical therapy for balance disorders. A video that shows a patient walking through the virtual store can be viewed at www.mvrc.pitt.edu/facility_balance.html.