London Met academics awarded grant to develop VR technology for Parkinson's patients

The charity Parkinson’s UK have awarded the grant to academics to use the new technology to help rehabilitate facial muscles.

Date: 1 February 2024

Academic staff from the School of Computing and Digital Media and School of Human Sciences have been awarded a grant from Parkinson's UK to design and develop a Virtual Reality (VR) headset that helps people rehabilitate their facial muscles. 

"We've been working with a great group of people with Parkinson's for the last couple of years," says project leader Fiona French.  "They've told us about their experiences and given us lots of advice to help guide the project.  They're really keen to try out the VR and like the way that the system can offer them some independence with their healthcare."

Sometimes, people living with Parkinson's begin to lose the ability to control their facial muscles, meaning that they can't smile or frown as easily.  This can have an effect on their relationships with friends and family, so it's a symptom that people care about a lot.  Being able to express oneself better will help not only with physical improvements in things such as eating and speaking but will hopefully improve wellbeing as people will feel more confident interacting with others. 

Most physiotherapy focuses on helping people with weak muscles build strength in their arms, legs and hands so they can remain active, but the London Met team aims to offer a system that works on the face. 

Fiona French and Cassie Terry published some proof-of-concept work in 2022, with SCDM games students, showing how it was possible to use small sensors to capture a player's facial muscle movement, and use it as an input to a game engine.  The students created a 3D model of a human face with underlying muscles, and an interactive system to go with it.  Players wearing the sensor system were able to trigger the 3D model to flex its smile muscle (zygomaticus major) just by smiling themselves!

The next challenge will be to develop an engaging system for people with Parkinson's, to motivate them to flex and strengthen their facial muscles a little more every day.

London Met staff members involved in this project are Fiona French (SCDM), Cassie Terry (SHSC), Dion Mariyanayagam (SCDM), Bal Virdee (SCDM), Ben Hunter (SHSC)

Showing sticky dots applied to volunteer’s face to help measure movement of facial muscles