Patients who need physiotherapy following a stroke or accident could soon be put through their paces in a virtual reality environment.
A researcher at the University of Portsmouth is creating a rehabilitation programme that places patients on a treadmill and into a virtual world.
It works by using moving images to trick the patient's brain into thinking he or she is walking more slowly than they are, which in turn encourages them to walk faster and further.
Early results also suggest that patients using virtual rehabilitation may experience less pain than traditional physiotherapy alone.
Wendy Powell, a PhD student at the School of Creative Technologies, has developed the software, which works in conjunction with a specially adapted treadmill.
Clinical trials on real patients are taking place in collaboration with experts at the renowned McGill University in Canada, where early results are encouraging.
A former chiropractor, Wendy hopes it will pave the way for an innovative approach to physiotherapy.
She said, "The virtual system encourages patients to walk more quickly and for longer, almost without them realising it. We are effectively fooling the brain and the body.
"The environment is stimulating and entertaining and there is less fear of falling over. Our test subjects are usually surprised when I tell them they have improved by up to 20%."
Powell hopes the system will also help older stoke patients who often find traditional approaches to improving their speed and distance difficult, because it relies very much on self-motivation.
She said, "After a stroke or fall many older people lack motivation and confidence and they do not feel steady on their feet, so getting out and about can be an issue and they can find the whole process rather dull."
Wendy's system uses a variety of different images from urban landscapes to forest and mountain scenes. She has built a system of rewards into some of the programmes, which encourages the patient to pick up objects and collect points.
She said that older people were not put off by the "computer game element" and seemed to enjoy it.