People who have suffered a stroke often have problems walking, not least because their brains have trouble sending movement commands to their legs. The first steps after such an event are slow, small and asymmetrical. Despite rehabilitation exercises, many retain an irregular gait.

What if an avatar—a virtual body controlled by a system that links the brain directly to a computer—could help patients regain control of their legs? This is the challenge that David Labbé, a professor-researcher at École de technologie supérieure, is tackling in collaboration with clinical researchers in rehabilitation.

The research team drew on avatars from virtual reality games to design their tool. This included the development of intelligent algorithms capable of recognizing a person’s different walking intentions based on brain waves (right foot vs left foot, for example).

The technology was tested on a group of adults with no physical disability. Equipped with a virtual reality headset, electrodes placed on the skull and motion sensors, each had to control their avatar by imagining walking movements. The scientists wanted to determine the extent to which participants had the illusion of becoming their avatar and feeling their body move without making any physical movements.

The results were conclusive, and David Labbé now hopes to carry out tests with stroke victims. Is it possible for them to recover lost walking function? And if so, is the progress they make maintained when the virtual reality is removed?

The researcher and his colleagues also hope to add game elements (different characters, for example) to their system, to make rehabilitation more stimulating, especially for people who have to repeat the same movement over and over again.