Imagine you’re 74 years old. You have impaired mobility and balance caused by a recent stroke and mild dementia. Walking has become frustrating and painful.

What if the simple act of sitting in a chair made you feel 17 again? And that same chair gave you perfect balance and a sense of weightlessness?

While in the chair, what if you used VR technology in an immersive experience? With the help of technology, you could fly over a beautiful landscape and control your twists and turns with the natural motion of your legs and back.

While this might sound like a possibility of the future, it’s actually already technology that’s making its way into healthcare applications today.

Returning the Joy of Movement to the Mobility Impaired

These are some of the questions Dr. Patrik Künzler, CEO of Limbic Life, is trying to answer with his work. Künzler, in an open collaboration project, has paired his company’s Limbic Chair with the Samsung Gear VR in the VITALICS research project being conducted by RehaClinic.

The VITALICS study participants are 60 or older. Some are healthy, while some have neurological conditions caused by stroke or dementia. The study explores how the chair paired with the Gear VR headset may offer a new, affordable and even enjoyable way to approach rehabilitation and preventive care. The two-year study is in early stages, so no data is compiled or published yet, but anecdotal evidence seems promising.

“Patients enjoy being in the chair and the freedom of movement it allows. They enjoy VR a lot, especially the flying games. When they get up from the chair, they’re in a good mood and feel happy,” says Künzler. “They feel like kids again.”

Why Limbic?

Künzler explains why the Limbic Chair was a good candidate for the VITALICS project with a mini-lesson in human evolution. He says humans evolved two separate pathways that work independently but also together. One pathway is our hand-eye coordination. The other is peripheral vision-spine coordination.

Think about walking down the street while checking your smartphone. Your eyes and hands work together as you send a text message, placing a high cognitive load on your brain. All the while, your peripheral vision and your spine keep your body moving forward. This is a reliable form of locomotion that works almost subconsciously without much focus required from your brain.

Künzler, as he developed the chair, observed how people moved. When we move, our spine is constantly making micro-movements, small adjustments that help us navigate through our world.

In the Limbic Chair, you still make those small adjustments, while keeping the spine straight and relaxed. The motion feels natural because it mimics our innate navigation systems, and also helps reduce the brain’s cognitive load, allowing patients to focus on the current therapy task when they’re in the chair. With the VITALICS collaboration, Limbic Life is currently working with Samsung to develop movement and task-functional games that can help patients recover in a more interactive way.

A New, Natural Navigation Platform for VR Technology

Navigation inside VR apps typically relies on hand motions or gaze tracking. Some people find this type of navigation feels unnatural or causes nausea. This can be especially true in healthcare applications. As he watched his team use the chair, Künzler wondered if placing sensors on it could provide a better navigation system inside VR applications.

“We don’t use our hands or our gaze to navigate in real life,” Künzler explains. “The design of the Limbic Chair allows the use of both systems in parallel. It’s really a novel movement platform that translates our natural body motion into VR navigation.”

Limbic Life originally had no plans to use their chairs in healthcare applications. “In the medical field the barriers to entry are high,” says Künzler, noting the tests and regulations that typically present onerous barriers to businesses hoping to expand into healthcare applications.

However, the opportunity to work with RehaClinic opened up when a Samsung employee used the chair with the VR application. Seeing the possibilities, Samsung Switzerland promoted the collaboration. “Without those two partners, we would have waited before trying this,” Künzler says.

Künzler, who trained as an MD, imagines an exciting future in healthcare applications of VR technology. “Smartphones will change how healthcare is done. As everyday devices enter the healthcare field, there will be big changes,” he says. “All hospitals want to improve patient lives and lower long-term treatment costs. When you’ve got affordable technology that’s also good, fun and easy to use anywhere, even in your own home, you can transform healthcare into something people enjoy.”

Künzler is speaking about the VITALICS partnership at this year’s Samsung Developer Conference. Get more info about his session and the conference to see what innovation will be on display.