Imagine escaping the dreary setting of inpatient hospitalization by taking a virtual bike trip in a scenic environment. That’s exactly what a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK has set out to do in a new trial using virtual reality in medicine.

The developers, known as the Human Interface Technology (HIT) team, have built a non-immersive virtual reality (VR) cycling experience for patients recovering after surgery. It’s not just for patients recovering from minor surgeries, as a recent report demonstrated, it also being used with a patient recovering from a dual lung transplant. Not only does this virtual reality experience offer an escape from the hospital, but it is also a form of physical rehabilitation. The patient actually pedals a stationary bike in bed that is synced with a VR monitor – somewhat similar to the virtual biking gym exercises, but modified to be used in a hospital bed.

This is a unique way of taking inpatient therapy to another level, while also offering scenic, ideally engaging vistas for the patient to explore. Specifically, the team from HIT built the simulation around a virtual model of the English coastal region of Devon. A released video of the project demonstrated the VR cycling being used with patients as part of their physical therapy (PT) regimen, as the goal is to be an adjuvant and not a replacement for traditional PT.

Rehabilitation of patients in ICU settings has recently been the focus of several published studies. There is increasing awareness of the dangers of the deconditioning associated with immobility and long hospital stays, and a greater emphasis on early rehabilitation (although published data has been mixed on this). I am not aware of any studies yet using VR rehabilitation in such acute phases of hospital stays, and hopefully the results of the HIT research will be published once complete.