Australian-first CAREN laboratory launched last week

By Melbourne School of Engineering

An Australian-first state of the art Virtual Reality (VR) biomechanical facility that is vastly improving our understanding of human movement and how to treat and prevent injuries was launched last week.

Federal Minister for Health the Hon Greg Hunt officially launched the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) laboratory on 15 March in front of invited university and industry guests. A crowd of invited university and industry guests attended the launch and were given a demonstration of the CAREN.

Minister Hunt said at the launch that the CAREN will assist in the great quest to advance knowledge.

“What you are doing is following in the tradition of the University of Melbourne, and for us we have been fortunate to have been supporting the University with over a billion dollars of research grants over the last fifteen years.”

Acting Vice-Chancellor Mark Considine said that research to be carried out by the CAREN strengthens an already vibrant culture of biomedical research at this university.

“By investing in the CAREN, the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne School of Engineering have made it clear we see this system as highly significant within the wider scope of healthcare and disability research, and in helping issues including mobility, ageing, and rehabilitation.”

Representatives from the Dutch Consulate attended the launch, as the Dutch company Motekforce Link manufactured the CAREN and was part of MoU signed by the King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands during a visit to Australia in 2016.

The CAREN brings together biomechanics, computer science and neuroscience to analyse human movement and performance in real-time.

Featuring a dual belt treadmill that sits on a movable platform, surrounded by a large curved screen projecting a VR scenario, the CAREN uses sensors and motion capture cameras to create a three-dimensional computer model of a patient’s body while they walk on the treadmill (in a safety harness), indicating the amount of joint motion and muscle loading in the limbs in real-time.

Melbourne School of Engineering Dean Graham Schaffer said the CAREN is distinct from other laboratories in that it simulates a field environment.

“The CAREN allows researchers to immerse the patient in a virtual reality environment such as a city street, forest or park, and safely make unplanned, physical perturbations to mimic real-life tripping and slipping scenarios. This enables us to analyse what muscles are activated, how joints function, and brain activity during movement, including the effects of mental and physical strain,” Professor Schaffer said.

Researchers Dr David Ackland, Deputy Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Professor Peter Lee from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and PhD student Raneem Haddara oversee the lab.

Dr Ackland, who studies muscle and joint function in the human body and how diseases or injury affect motor performance, said the CAREN will help him understand how patients are responding to surgery and rehabilitation.

“For example, we can look at how a joint replacement is affecting a person’s ability to move a joint after surgery, or how a stroke patient’s balance and fall risk is affected by rehabilitation. The breadth of applications is endless.”

Read more on Pursuit.