Nicky Blackburn
July 2, 2006, Updated September 13, 2012

The ‘virtual mall’ appears on a television screen and is explored by moving parts of the body.Most people are only joking when they refer to “retail therapy” – as if shopping could truly cure what ails them.

But Israeli researchers have actually developed a virtual shopping center that helps stroke victims improve their cognitive functioning and recover strength in their upper bodies.

The “virtual mall”, which was developed by University of Haifa Occupational Therapy student, Debbie Rand, who is studying for her doctorate, allows stroke patients to wander virtually through a range of stores, picking out and paying for purchases, just as they would on a real shopping trip.

The patient stands in front of a large TV screen, and a small camera set in front displays the person’s image within the virtual environment. No other accessories are necessary.

“The patient operates the environment by moving his body,” says 37-year-old Rand. “They move their arms and hands to take things from the shelves and put them in the basket. As they ‘shop’ they can watch themselves and receive feedback about their movements.”

Rand developed the virtual mall under the guidance of Prof. Tamar Weiss of the University of Haifa’s Dept. of Occupational Therapy, and Prof. Noomi Katz of the Hebrew University’s School of Occupational Therapy.

She came up with the idea after seeing how stroke patients benefited from specially adapted soccer games developed on a virtual reality system developed by Canadian company Gesture Tech. “We wanted to maximize the ability of patients in everyday living,” she explains. “When patients are in rehabilitation, it is very hard to reproduce functional tasks such as shopping, and yet these are very important for them.

“We have found that many stroke patients achieve independence in basic living activities such as eating, dressing, bathing and going to the toilet, but in more complex tasks, such as shopping, or catching a bus, which require both physical activity and thinking and cognitive abilities such as planning and problem solving, they have major problems and often end up staying at home and not functioning in the community.”

“In rehabilitation it is impossible to take a patient shopping every day, but with the virtual mall, we can take the shops and the supermarket into the clinic or hospital,” she says.

So far, seven stroke patients have been treated through a ‘visit’ to the virtual mall. Before they began work with the virtual reality program, Rand took them to a real mall to test their abilities to carry out a number of complex shopping tasks. They then worked for a period on the virtual mall, and afterwards were tested once more in real mall environment.

“We discovered that their ability to carry out shopping tasks improved substantially,” says Rand. “They managed to perform more tasks, and made far less mistakes. It helped both their physical and cognitive rehabilitation.”

In addition, she says, the patients enjoyed the experience. “They did not focus on the weakness in their arms, but on the shopping tasks they had to carry out. As a result they were able to work longer and harder than in conventional therapy. Using their arms in a functional way to shop, they forgot they were working so hard.”

Up to now the only virtual reality shopping programs developed for stroke patients require patients to use a keyboard and mouse. “This is not a natural experience,” says Rand.

The virtual mall was developed on the Canadian VR system by Rand and Meir Shahar, a programmer with the University’s Laboratory for Innovations in Technology (LIT).

In future, Rand hopes to further develop the virtual reality mall to help patients suffering from other disabilities such as traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury. All of which will contribute to giving the expression “retail therapy” a whole new meaning.

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