Background: Skilled performance of reach actions includes both anticipatory planning and compensatory adjustments made while moving. The execution of reach actions in a virtual environment (VE) demonstrates similar characteristics to reaches performed in the real-world, however, it is unclear whether the VE itself significantly impacts movement planning or compensatory adjustments. The purpose of this study was to directly compare the use of planning and adjustments to control extent for unconstrained reach actions performed in an immersive VE to those performed in an analogous real-world environment (RWE).
Methods: Five non-disabled adults (29±5 years) reached with the dominant, right arm to six targets presented in two directions (+45°, -45°) and three distances (8, 16, 24 cm) in a VE and an analogous RWE. Position data were sampled at 120 Hz from an electromagnetic marker on the index finger and differentiated to determine velocity and acceleration. The control of reach extent was compared between the two environments (paired t-test) as to the use of planning (correlation of peak acceleration with movement distance), compensatory adjustments prior to peak velocity (correlation of time to peak velocity with movement distance), and compensatory adjustments after peak velocity (variance in movement distance accounted for by deterministic statistical model).
Results: Reach movements were relatively fast (<400 msec) and scaled to target distance in both the VE and RWE. Overall, the control of reach extent was similar in all respects between the two environments. In both environments, a hybrid control pattern was observed. That is, individuals utilized a combined strategy that relied on both planning and compensatory adjustments to capture the target. Adjustments to the reach were evident prior to peak velocity through changes in acceleration duration as well as after peak velocity based on target information. The two factor deterministic statistical model (peak velocity, target distance) explained >92% of the variance in movement distance across participants and environments.
Conclusions: The VE did not impact movement planning or subsequent compensatory adjustments for the control of reach extent when directly compared to an analogous RWE. An immersive VE is a valid environment for the study of unconstrained reach actions.