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Professor Peter Lee from the Department of Mechanical Engineering (standing); Dr David Ackland, Deputy Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering (sitting behind) and PhD student Raneem Hadara (sitting in front)/ Credit: University of Melbourne

Professor Peter Lee from the Department of Mechanical Engineering (standing); Dr David Ackland, Deputy Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering (sitting behind) and PhD student Raneem Hadara (sitting in front)/ Credit: University of Melbourne

New Virtual Reality biomechanical facility launched at University of Melbourne

A new Virtual Reality (VR) biomechanical facility, which brings together biomechanics, computer science and neuroscience to analyse human movement and performance in real-time, has been launched at the University of Melbourne. The facility aims to improve understanding of human movement and how to treat and prevent injuries.

The Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN), developed by Motekforce Link, was launched on 15 February by Federal Minister for Health the Hon Greg Hunt. The facility is the first one of its kind in Australia.

CAREN features a dual belt treadmill that sits on a movable platform, surrounded by a large curved screen projecting a VR scenario, placing the patient in a city, street, forest or park. The platform can be tilted or jolted back and forth in any direction. The two belts of the treadmill can be moved independently to simulate tripping, and a harness prevents injury in the event of a fall.

Sensors and motion capture cameras are used to create a three-dimensional computer model of a patient’s body while they walk on the treadmill, indicating the amount of joint motion and muscle loading in the limbs in real-time.

Researchers can also measure the ground reaction force – the force that occurs when people step, walk or run. In addition, they can collect information about muscle and brain activity through methods like electromyography (EMG) and electroencephalography (EEG). This enables the researchers to analyse the effects of mental and physical strain.

Melbourne School of Engineering Dean Graham Schaffer said the CAREN is distinct from other laboratories in that it simulates a field environment.

“In a normal lab, you’re always going to walk a bit differently. You cannot move the ground and get someone to trip, whereas here you can do that in a safe environment,” Professor Schaffer said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said, “CAREN has the potential to change lives by using advanced technology to give people back their mobility.” 

University of Melbourne Acting Vice-Chancellor Mark Considine commented that this facility will benefit researchers from a range of different fields.

“The functionality of the CAREN is unique, and it is being used by some of the best and most advanced clinical and research facilities in the world. It’s a tremendous boost for Melbourne, allowing our researchers to work more closely together on grand challenges such as ageing, rehabilitation and mental health,” Professor Considine said.

Researchers Dr David Ackland, Deputy Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Professor Peter Lee from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and PhD student Raneem Hadara oversee the lab.

Professor Lee said that the research applications of CAREN can be separated into three different groups, rehabilitation, sports medicine and defence. For example, in defence, the researchers are interested in a load carriage system. When soldiers carry heavy loads, they want to understand the effect of the load on soldiers’ joints and how to maximise energy efficiency.

PhD candidate Raneem Haddara is studying anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries and whether protective braces can help prevent them. These injuries are particularly common among female athletes. Previous studies on braces have measured pre-planned movements but ACL injuries are caused by unanticipated motion. With CAREN she can make those unplanned movements occur to try and mimic the real-life situation.

Dr Ackland, who studies muscle and joint function in the human body and how diseases or injury affect motor performance, said the CAREN will help him understand how patients are responding to surgery and rehabilitation. It will allow accurate evaluation of how people generate joint motion pre- and post-operatively.

“For example, we can look at how a joint replacement is affecting a person’s ability to move a joint after surgery, or how a stroke patient’s balance and fall risk is affected by rehabilitation. The breadth of applications is endless,” he said.

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