Researcher who designed and developed the U of A Rehabilitation Robotics Lab uses cutting-edge technology to improve quality of life for persons with disabilities

Martin Ferguson-Pell hopes to integrate virtual and augmented reality with virtual care to help patients in remote locations.

10 July 2023

Martin Ferguson-Pell’s research uses virtual reality, robotics and novel sensor systems to advance the field of rehabilitation with a particular focus on using them in real-world settings. He has recently been awarded a grant to study equitable access and appropriateness of pelvic-floor telerehabilitation for women in remote and rural communities. 

A biomedical engineer, credentialed clinical scientist, professor and former dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Ferguson-Pell designed and developed the University of Alberta’s Rehabilitation Robotics Lab. The lab attracts interdisciplinary researchers from various faculties such as Rehabilitation Medicine, Medicine & Dentistry, Kinesiology, Engineering, Arts and Science, whose aim is to improve the quality of life for people living with a disability.

Before joining the U of A in 2007, Ferguson-Pell was the founding chair in Neuromuscular Restoration and Rehabilitation (Disability and Technology) at the Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, University College London and director of research for England’s Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital. Previously he served as director of the Center for Rehabilitation Technology, which he established at the Helen Hayes Hospital in New York State. 

Ferguson-Pell was recently interviewed for the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s Research News newsletter:

What is your area of research and how did you end up there?
My academic training was in physics with a PhD in biomedical engineering. I became particularly interested in rehabilitation applications of technology through the direct clinical experiences I had as part of my PhD, which focused on deep tissue injury (pressure ulcers).

After finishing my PhD I took a position in New York at a rehabilitation hospital called Helen Hayes Hospital. My role was to look at how we could develop technologies to support people living with disabilities, and as a result of that, we eventually created a Center for Rehabilitation Technology. It was one of the first assistive technology programs where rehabilitation technologies were being delivered under the leadership of clinicians rather than under the leadership of engineers. 

What pulled you out of New York?
There was a phone call from University College London. They were establishing a new chair in technology and disability. I was intrigued, was interviewed and successfully appointed in 1995.

And from London, how did you find yourself in Edmonton?
The phone rang again. It was the provost of the University of Alberta, who said they were looking for someone who could take on the role of dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. My name came up, and they wondered whether I'd be interested in coming to Alberta and taking a look at the opportunity. So we came as a family in January to find out about Alberta and the university (there was a snowstorm at the time), and they offered me the position. 

What was your lab working on during those early years at the U of A?
One of the areas we were working on in London was wheelchair biomechanics, so I brought some of the expertise and equipment across from London to Edmonton. One of the things I wanted to do was to create simulated environments for people to test a wheelchair in, so we could do more sophisticated biomechanical analysis. 

While I was dean, we were also designing the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, which enabled the health sciences to have a single building to promote interdisciplinarity learning and to some degree, research. We included a number of interdisciplinary, interfaculty thematic spaces in the design. One of these resulted in the creation of the Rehabilitation Robotics Sandbox.

I was working with Vivian Mushahwar and others to create the SMART Network, another interdisciplinary, interfaculty initiative. We received a large infrastructure grant, which included advanced motion-capture equipment and a virtual-reality cube into which we embedded a wheelchair ergometer inside. We used these to create a simulated environment around wheelchair propulsion. We could apply brakes and measure body motion and calculate joint forces, much as we do with gait analysis.

We expanded the virtual reality aspects of the program to include mobile devices, VR headsets and augmented-reality glasses. The program, CogPro, has grown significantly since then.

Finally, once my various administrative roles were complete I returned to a more conventional professorial role and started to expand the scope of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab to include virtual care. The program has grown considerably since then with close collaboration with Alberta Health Services and continuing-care partners.

Is there anything coming on the technological horizon that you are excited to see develop?
The bringing together of virtual and augmented reality and virtual care. By bringing those together, we can meet with and interact with patients in a remote environment as close to a realistic kind of interaction as possible.

One of the things missing right now is the hands-on aspects of assessment. In virtual care at the moment, it's quite difficult to do, but I think that will change in the next five years with the further advancement of haptic (technology that can create a tactile-like experience for the user). We're not going to just think of virtual care as being something we deliver to rural communities, but actually as something we deliver in urban settings, especially as the footprint of cities like Edmonton continues to expand.

Do you have a favourite piece of advice you like to give your grad students?
I really encourage grad students to feel comfortable about experimenting and following their curiosity. If they do that, they can gain experience in connecting outside of their discipline, use the opportunity to think differently about their project and work with other people that may be outside the immediate academic context.

If you could do any profession other than your own, what might you be doing?
I suppose that the answer might be connected to the work I have been doing over the last number of years at the business interface between academia and the private sector, particularly social enterprises. I found myself doing those things because they're driven by need, but the entrepreneurial skill set that's needed for them is completely different from typical academic leadership experiences.