Virtual Reality Stair Navigation for Rehabilitative Applications

Natalie Koh
Nataliya Rokmanhova

Alyssa Spomer
Natalie VanDevanter

An individual’s ability to successfully navigate stairs can drop dramatically after a stroke, loss of a limb, or traumatic brain injury, resulting in a loss of independence in daily life and increasing the risk of falls and further injury. Rehabilitation efforts which target stair navigation are critical to restoring safe and independent ambulation; however, current practices are limited to physical staircase training which can be physically demanding for both clinicians and patients, and do little to curtail the fear of falling that some individuals may have. As such, there exists a need to develop a safe, low-impact, low-cost stair simulation that can serve as an intermediate rehabilitative tool to retrain mechanics and improve confidence before physical stair navigation.

We are currently designing and assessing the rehabilitative efficacy of a system which combines virtual reality and passive haptics to create the illusion of stair navigation. The system uses a series of tilted, intentionally spaced haptic blocks coupled with visual cues from a virtual staircase to give the user the experience of walking up or down a flight of stairs while, in reality , they are safely walking on flat ground. While the developed system is promising, its role in rehabilitation must be better understood. In order to assess the value of this system in rehabilitation, motion capture and electromyography measurements will be used to identify congruences in kinematic and motor control patterns during virtual stair navigation with those seen in physical navigation. In parallel, the system will be evaluated as a means of providing a low-risk, realistic practice space to improve confidence in physical stair navigation. It is our hope that the outcome of our work will provide insight into the value of using this system as an intermediate step to retrain movement patterns necessary for safe stair navigation.

We are currently integrating our motion capture system with Unity to develop a convincing virtual experience for the user and hope to begin human subjects testing in the upcoming month. We look forward to providing an update soon as we begin to assess the efficacy of this rehabilitative tool.

If you would like to know more about the project, please feel free to contact us at

Mentored by:

Sujata Pradhan