[ARTICLE] Locomotor skill acquisition in virtual reality shows sustained transfer to the real world – Full Text



Virtual reality (VR) is a potentially promising tool for enhancing real-world locomotion in individuals with mobility impairment through its ability to provide personalized performance feedback and simulate real-world challenges. However, it is unknown whether novel locomotor skills learned in VR show sustained transfer to the real world. Here, as an initial step towards developing a VR-based clinical intervention, we study how young adults learn and transfer a treadmill-based virtual obstacle negotiation skill to the real world.


On Day 1, participants crossed virtual obstacles while walking on a treadmill, with the instruction to minimize foot clearance during obstacle crossing. Gradual changes in performance during training were fit via non-linear mixed effect models. Immediate transfer was measured by foot clearance during physical obstacle crossing while walking over-ground. Retention of the obstacle negotiation skill in VR and retention of over-ground transfer were assessed after 24 h.


On Day 1, participants systematically reduced foot clearance throughout practice by an average of 5 cm (SD 4 cm) and transferred 3 cm (SD 1 cm) of this reduction to over-ground walking. The acquired reduction in foot clearance was also retained after 24 h in VR and over-ground. There was only a small, but significant 0.8 cm increase in foot clearance in VR and no significant increase in clearance over-ground on Day 2. Moreover, individual differences in final performance at the end of practice on Day 1 predicted retention both in VR and in the real environment.


Overall, our results support the use of VR for locomotor training as skills learned in a virtual environment readily transfer to real-world locomotion. Future work is needed to determine if VR-based locomotor training leads to sustained transfer in clinical populations with mobility impairments, such as individuals with Parkinson’s disease and stroke survivors.


In recent years, virtual reality (VR) has been increasingly used to provide engaging, interactive, and task-specific locomotor training [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]. These studies have simulated walking in different environments such as parks or streets [34], walking on a slope [3], or walking while avoiding obstacles [3,4,57]. VR-based locomotor training frequently includes obstacle negotiation because it is an essential locomotor skill in the community [457] and tripping over obstacles is a common cause of falls in many patient populations [9]. The clinical application of VR-based training interventions is predicated on the idea that practice in VR will lead to lasting changes in trained skills and that these changes will influence real-world behavior. Therefore, understanding how locomotor skills acquired in VR are retained and how these skills generalize to the real world is critical for determining the long-term utility of VR for locomotor rehabilitation.

The presence of lasting changes in a motor skill as a result of practice is a hallmark of motor learning and this retention process has been examined across a wide variety of real and virtual learning contexts. Retention of motor skills has been examined in response to VR training, particularly in fields such as flight and medical procedural training. For example, complex surgical and medical skills are performed faster and more accurately during a retention session following a single day of VR-based training [10,11,12,13]. Retention of locomotor skills is often explored in studies that analyze how people adapt to external perturbations such as a split-belt treadmill which has separate belts for the right and left legs [14,15,16], elastic force fields [17], robotic exoskeletons [18], or added loads [19]. For instance, studies of split-belt treadmill adaptation have revealed that the increases in step length asymmetry observed during initial exposure to the belts moving at different speeds significantly decreased with subsequent exposures to the device [14,15,16]. A recent study by Krishnan and colleagues also investigated locomotor skill learning during a tracking task in which participants were instructed to match a pre-defined target of hip and knee trajectories as accurately as possible during the swing phase of the gait [20]. They found that the reduction in tracking error achieved through practice is retained the following day. Although motor skill learning in VR and locomotor learning have been examined in isolation, it remains to be seen how locomotor skills are acquired and retained following training in a virtual environment.

Skill transfer, which is defined as “the gain or loss in the capability for performance in one task as a result of practice or experience on some other task” [21], is another key feature of motor learning. Skill transfer is particularly critical when skill acquisition occurs in a context that differs from the environment in which the skill is to be expressed. One way in which skill transfer has been evaluated during motor learning is by measuring how the adaptation of reaching in a robot-generated force field generalizes to unconstrained reaching. This work has shown that adaptation to reaching in a curl-field leads to increased curvature during reaching in free space [2223]. Moreover, studies of treadmill-based locomotor skill learning often evaluate transfer of learned skills from treadmill walking to over-ground. For example, during split-belt treadmill adaptation, the learned changes in interlimb symmetry partially transfer to over-ground walking [24]. Further, VR-based training of obstacle negotiation on a treadmill led to increased walking speeds in the lab [57] and community [4]. However, the evaluation of transfer in these VR-based training studies was based on outcome measures such as walking speed that did not reflect the objective of the training task, which was the control of foot clearance obstacle negotiation. Therefore, it remains to be seen if the elements of skill from VR-training transfer to over-ground walking.

Underlying individual differences in learning can influence motor skill retention and transfer to new environments. For example, a recent study demonstrated that healthy older adults and people post-stroke who acquire a motor sequence skill at a faster rate also show greater retention of that skill [25]. Similarly, the rate of skill acquisition for a reaching task during early training predicts faster trial completion time at 1-month follow-up [26]. Lastly, the magnitude of improvements in reaching speed during skill acquisition predicts long-term changes in reaching speed in healthy individuals [27]. Studies of individual differences in transfer have most often sought to understand how the practice of a skill with one limb influences performance of the same skill with the untrained limb. For example, interlimb transfer of motor skills acquired through visuomotor adaptation varies with handedness [28] and individual differences in baseline movement variability [29]. However, far less work has sought to understand how individual differences in skill acquisition affect the transfer of learned skills to new environments. Overall, the influence of individual differences in skill acquisition on locomotor skill retention and sustained transfer has yet to be determined.

Here, we determined how individual differences in locomotor skill learning during virtual reality treadmill-based training influence retention and transfer of learned skills to over-ground walking in the real world. We used a VR-based version of a previously established precision obstacle negotiation task [3031] and asked 1) whether healthy young adults could learn to minimize clearance during virtual obstacle negotiation, 2) if the learned skill transferred to over-ground walking, 3) if the learned skill was retained in both VR and the real world after 24 h, and 4) if individual differences in the amount or rate of skill acquisition could predict retention and transfer. We hypothesized that 1) participants would reduce foot clearance in VR during practice on Day 1 and that 2) the reduced foot clearance in VR would transfer to over-ground obstacle negotiation. We also hypothesized that 3) the reduction in foot clearance in VR and over-ground would be retained in each environment after a 24-h retention period. Lastly, given that the rate and magnitude of the performance improvement during skill acquisition have been established as predictors of skill retention in previous studies, we also hypothesized that 4) these measures would predict retention of the learned skill in VR and over-ground. Given the growing use of VR for motor skill learning, our results may provide a unique opportunity to understand the factors that influence how training in VR might lead to long-term improvements in skilled locomotion. […]


Continue —> Locomotor skill acquisition in virtual reality shows sustained transfer to the real world | Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation | Full Text

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