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We’ve all heard quotes like: “On the one yard line…,” “Pick yourself up and…,” “Focus your eye on…,”“One foot in front of the other…,” “Choose your path wisely.” It is embedded in our essence that learning, faculty, and experience are intrinsically tied to physical movement.  Not only the act of moving your legs and arms, but also the movement of your eyes, the angle of your feet, the pace, gait, and balance of your movement; all these things are critical input sensors that each of us use to function and evolve as humans, but what if you couldn’t move? Physical disabilities in children, not only limit their mobility, but also limit their ability to learn. Similarly, adults who lose their physical movement are highly challenged to function without the basic syncopations of movement that most of us take for granted. I joined a small team of people on a tour to peer into a lab that has taken on the mission to facilitate those challenged by movement.

The trip was organized by Paige Goodpasture of, “The Creative Habit” (WRIR), who had us all meet at the original West Hospital building at 1200 E. Broad Street on the campus of MCV of VCU. Paige had pulled together a few of the organizers from TEDxRVA to be the Guinea Pigs for the tour of this special place. Down in the basement, amongst the setting of a hospital from the 1940’s, is the engineering lab of VCU’s Dr. Peter Pidcoe.  You can tell quickly that Pidcoe is no novice and this is the place of “doers.” The magic within this lab has taken decades to develop. First, Pidcoe has degrees in computer science, mechanical engineering, physical therapy, and about 5 other things I can’t remember how to spell. The “breadth” of his in-depth education has left him a fairly unique and highly impactful individual.  Within his lab is a bit of a trophy room of past explorations comprised of exercise equipment, robots and circuit boards. The lab focuses on movement rehabilitation through facilitative, interdisciplinary solutions that have been designed to address specific problems in physical therapeutics.

Pidcoe demonstrated several projects that are and have been in the works in his lab with the help of students.  One recent project required them to hack the functionality of an Xbox to help with measuring overall movement in a more simple way— In the need for a quick solution they had to decide— Should a therapist spend hours suiting up a patient in order to run that patient through a complex analysis of their gait? Or can the Xbox’s function of detecting a player’s motion serve a quicker purpose? They found their answer. The hack was a good quick solution. Another project that shows promise is a sort of FitBit but for a user that doesn’t have the usual mobility as an able bodied wearer may have— For example, someone who may have recently suffered a stroke will have a different stride in their walk than someone else.  Pidcoe’s device could take into account those differences in the patient’s walk/mobility and account for that in recording their progress as they recover from their stroke.  Pidcoe demonstrated several projects.  All with the theme of “being able to better someone’s life” as they overcome whatever physical adversity has been put before them.

I think the only downer of the tour was realizing how difficult it is to go from an inspiring concept to limited production then to scaled solutions. Patent Law, regulatory requirements, the constant cycle of changing grad students, and effort to intermingle corporate and university collaboration are all complexities that each master researcher must navigate in tandem. When you are an agent of change like Dr. Pidcoe, it’s important to note your job is not just to develop therapy, but the process to disperse it in order to get to the many who need its value.

It’s inspiring to walk on MCV’s campus, enter one building, take the stairs to the basement, walk through one of hundreds of doors and find this “magic” behind its threshold. In Richmond we have a great wealth of interesting individuals who are doing their part to change the world.

Andy Sitison
Lead, Volunteer Ops
TEDxRVA 2016

Photos contributed by:
Andy Sitison
Patricia Bradby
Risa Gomez