Student-designed virtual reality game gets Glenrose patients moving

Pirate-themed virtual reality game fun for patients

A student-designed virtual reality game is helping patients recover from serious brain injuries while putting them in the role of a treasure-hunting Blackbeard.

Students from the Digital Media and IT program created a pirate-themed virtual reality scavenger hunt for patients at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton. The exercise was part of a year-end project, or capstone, that saw students design a virtual reality game from scratch for use in the Glenrose’s HoloLens headsets.

“The patient has the headset on and they’re roaming in a space, whether it’s a room, a gymnasium or just the hospital hallway. It’s designed to get the patients moving and find some way to engage them, so they want to do the exercise,” explains James Hamann, one of seven students (and now grads, class of ’18) who worked on the project this past spring.

Creating an entire VR game in just four months was initially considered too difficult. Instead, the team’s assignment was to design a toolkit that would guide programmers in subsequent years – essentially building a game in phases. But after a bit of effort the students felt they could tackle the game on their own.

Hunt for treasure

Players don the headset, which shows them a list of items they must locate in a specific area. Playing cards feature illustrations in a pirate theme, which students felt would add a fun element to the game, such as a tall ship’s wheel, pirate flags and treasure chest keys.

“It’s a lot more engaging for our patients to do.”

Cards are placed in rooms throughout the hospital for patients to find. The headset shows users a 3D model of the illustrations, which appear above the cards. Once the HoloLens scans the card, it’s checked off the list.

On the road to recovery

Michael Cimolini, technology service lead at the Glenrose, says about nine patients have played the HoloLens game one to two times per week since it was completed this past spring.

The game tests a patient’s ability to detect and recognize visual stimuli, which is useful particularly among those who have suffered a serious brain injury or stroke. Therapists track how long it takes to scan and recognize certain objects, which ones they missed or incorrectly identified. With practice, patients should show improvements in speed and accuracy, Cimolini says.

Therapists traditionally have asked patients to perform similar exercises with sticky notes placed in hospital corridors, but the VR version is easier to track a patient’s success – and a lot more fun.

“It’s a lot more engaging for our patients to do,” says Cimolini. “They’re still getting the same quality of rehabilitation that they’d be getting with traditional therapy, but they actually want to come and do it.”

Hamann, who had a hand in creating many of the card illustrations, says the team is proud of its efforts and knowing that their work has such important real-world applications.

“Even to have a small role in a project that’s helping people get back on their feet and move again is just a good feeling,” he says. “These patients struggle with the daily tasks that we take for granted and this game helps them have fun even when [circumstances] aren’t necessarily fun.”

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