Virtual reality (VR) has always seemed like an answer looking for a problem. This was never clearer than with Meta’s recent metaverse stumble, which cost the company over two thirds of its stock valuation at the time of writing. For a technology that has always seemed focused on its potential as a gaming device, it seems like it may be doomed to disappoint. However, with Penumbra’s recent announcement of its Virtual Reality REAL-y platform, VR may find a second wind in the rehabilitation segment…with video games.

Last Tuesday, Penumbra announced the world’s first totally hands-free and untethered VR rehab solution, with full body rehabilitation capabilities. GlobalData estimates that there are approximately 52 million potential rehab patients in the US, which means that VR technology has a large patient population to grow to accommodate. Furthermore, GlobalData expects the VR market to grow to a heady $80 billion by 2030. If the REAL-y platform is able to prove its worth, Penumbra could snag a large part of this market. But how does it work? Penumbra executive VP and GM Gita Barry was quoted as saying: “Two of the largest challenges in rehabilitation are maintaining patient motivation and lack of engagement.” By ‘gamifying’ therapy, it is thought that patients are more likely to be engaged and complete their exercises.

Whether or not this gamble pays off still remains to be seen, as the market does not yet have a fully developed hardware and software ecosystem to support the REAL-y system. Things look promising, however; should the REAL-y system prove that it is able to overcome the engagement and motivation problems that have plagued the field of physiotherapy, it may begin to see a lot of engagement. Another important question is the reimbursement status of these devices. In the US, reimbursement strongly controls whether or not a device is taken up by the healthcare industry, as it greatly cuts the cost to the client. To secure reimbursement, Penumbra will have to prove the worth of its device.

However, GlobalData believes that there are several tailwinds that Penumbra and the greater ‘VR as a rehabilitation tool’ market will enjoy. The proportion of elderly people is ever growing, and with it, the need for rehabilitation. As these patients also tend to be wealthier than their younger counterparts, the rehabilitation industry can expect to see an influx of wealthy patients in decades to come. Furthermore, the growing acceptance of software and devices as medical devices means that these devices are commonplace. This may bolster the FDA’s likelihood of approving them for reimbursement status, as happened with telehealth devices during the Covid-19 pandemic.