Virtual Reality: The New Frontier for Balance Research

Virtual reality often conjures up images of video gamers immersed in an imaginary world, or perhaps training exercises for the military or NASA.

At NYU, researchers are exploring a new application for virtual reality beyond entertainment and training: balance control.

Ken Perlin, professor of computer science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, director of NYU’s Future Reality Lab, and a leader in the development of virtual reality technologies, recently created a virtual reality “magic carpet” that in gaming, can launch a user over mountain ranges and through oceans. The HovrMat — developed and manufactured by Tactonic Technologies, a startup co-founded by Perlin — is a highly-sensitive stationary platform that can also measure slight changes in the pressure of a user’s feet.

This makes it an intriguing tool for a balance researcher like Anat Lubetzky, assistant professor of physical therapy at NYU Steinhardt. Perlin recently teamed up with Lubetzky to bring his innovation to the field of personal health.

Lubetzky is exploring how to use virtual reality with patients with balance problems, including those suffering from vertigo or dizziness as a result of a brain injury. Using a virtual reality headset and a HovrMat, the researchers are measuring how people cope with busy visual environments and understand how much people rely on their vision for balance in a dynamic environment with moving objects.

Their collaboration aims to create a sensitive, affordable, and quick virtual reality tool to assess one’s balance and diagnose impairments. The researchers envision that this virtual reality tool could also guide and monitor balance rehabilitation – and perhaps, could even help improve users’ balance.