An ‘X-Factor’ style audition process will see some of Europe’s top developers compete to create products using virtual reality (VR) and digital technology to aid rehabilitation for people with a range of health conditions.

Researchers at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and Teesside University are part of the ambitious international VR4Rehab project aiming to extend the scope of digital technology and VR for rehabilitation.

A series of ‘hackathons’ will be taking place across Europe to bring togeth er developers in VR and digital technology with clinical experts, academics and researchers from the various partners.

Royal Free London and Teesside University, with support from Brunel University London, will be working together to coordinate the UK Hackathon to be held on 4 and 5 July 2018 at Brunel University London.

The health experts, together with young people and adults with disabilities and their families and patients, will detail the issues and challenges faced in treating various health problems, such as managing pain, controlling movement and encouraging physical and social activity. 

The developers will then come up with ideas for digital and VR solutions, which will help address these issues and concerns. Those who come up with the best ideas will be invited back to develop prototypes and pitch their solutions to a panel of experts in a number of ‘game jams’. A winner will be chosen in each theme and they will then work with the VR4Rehab team to bring their idea to market.

Dr Dido Green, specialist research therapist at the Royal Free Hospital and associate professor in occupational therapy at Jönköping University Sweden, is leading the project in London. She will be working alongside Dr Betty Hutchon, head of children’s occupational therapy and Dr Cherry Kilbride, research lead for allied health professionals at the Royal Free Hospital.

Dr Green’s research specialises in understanding the psychosocial impact of childhood disability and developing innovative and effective interventions to improve functional outcomes and participation. Dr Green is heading up the challenge of developing VR tools to enhance engagement and immersion to improve treatment adherence (focus on remote delivery).

Dr Green said: “I am excited by the opportunities this project has to link experts in health, innovation and business to address issues confronting the delivery of excellent health care. Digital technologies and virtual reality are showing great potential to address the need for intensive therapies that can be delivered in accessible environments. 

“Along with the difficulties many patients and children and their families experience in accessing facilities that provide intensive rehabilitation programmes, another barrier to rehabilitation is maintaining motivation to persist with extensive therapy programmes. Virtual reality may provide ‘real’ alternatives to overcome some of these obstacles.”

The international project is being funded for three years, with the first year spent setting up the ‘hackathons’ across Europe, the second year seeing the ideas developed from the  ‘game jams’ tested across North West Europe, and the third year dedicated to the winners working with the VR4Rehab team to fully develop and roll out their ideas.

This research links the NHS Information and Technology for Better Care Strategy, which is part of wider aims to address some of the global challenges of our time through research that makes a real, practical difference to the lives of people, along with the success of businesses and economies. 

Professor Denis Martin from Teesside University said: “I am delighted that Teesside University is able to be involved and provide expertise for such an exciting and innovative international project which should have a significant beneficial effect on a wide range of health issues.

"Digital technology and virtual reality can provide so many different opportunities within healthcare and rehabilitation and I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas and solutions the developers come up with.

“In terms of chronic pain, one of the problems people have is getting access to the right kind of advice and support – that is where things like interactive education and games can help people to better manage their lives while living with pain.”