MICA Game Lab and Shock Trauma are developing VR games for spinal injury patients

Published 9/17/19 in Technical.ly Baltimore

With the collaboration, the Baltimore institutions are developing virtual reality games that use a quadstick, which can be controlled by the mouth and chin.

The Maryland Institute College of Art’s Game Lab partnered with the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland in order to develop virtual reality applications that will aid patients with high spinal cord injuries during their hospital recovery.

According to Dr. Sarah Murthi, Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Maryland, one of the main struggles that individuals with spinal cord injuries that result in quadriplegia face is relearning how to breathe without a ventilator. This is done by trials, where the breathing tube assisting the patient is taken out for a period of time, and then put back in. The process of relearning how to breathe can take from two weeks to three months, and can be a very stressful experience.

“My clinical practice involves taking care of a lot of patients who have high spinal cord injuries and those patients take a lot of time to relearn how to breathe and that process is incredibly anxiety producing,” said Murthi. “Aside from really powerful and harmful medication, we don’t have the tools to make the process better.”

Working with MICA Game Lab Director Jason Corace, Murthi is aiming to design “a set of tools that will make the experience of weaning off the ventilator be less anxiety-producing and be more fun.”

The collaboration will result in a number of prototypes that will be experimented with by the end of this year. The prototypes will be tested in their efficacy of extending the time period where patients stay off of a ventilator.

“Virtual reality can more fully immerse the senses. Pain and anxiety require your brain to be paying attention to the neural impulses that are coming back,” said Murthi. “If the brain is otherwise involved, it won’t perceive the pain or anxiety in
the same amount that it would without virtual reality. “

Some examples of VR prototypes being developed by students in the MICA Game Lab are an archery game, a gardening game, and a running game. According to Corace, the students working on this project are testing out games for different types of players. The games will be directed towards patients who are game players and want higher activity, as well as for those who want a more passive experience.

“This is an interesting project for our students and for us because this is really research,” said Corace. “No one has developed specific games for quadsticks or for VR when there is no full body interaction.”

Patients will be able to navigate VR games by using a quadstick, which is a small joystick that can be controlled by the mouth or the chin. There will also be a series of tubes that patients can blow into that will also act as an input.

“Once there is a product we can use, we can have a few patients with spinal cord injuries who have healed play it and get their feedback,” said Murthi. “Then once we have a prototype that we think patients can use, hopefully by the end of this year, we have a few colleagues with spinal cord injuries that are willing to try it. After that, we can start looking at patients in Shock Trauma looking to come off of ventilators and see if they last longer.”

The team members from R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center that are working on the project are also a part of the Maryland Blended Reality Center, a collaboration between computer scientists at the University of Maryland, College Park and the physicians at Shock Trauma in Baltimore. Their work centers on using virtual reality and augmented reality for a variety of medical applications, including: developing trainings and better ways of displaying data, using virtual reality to reduce opioid usage and exploring if virtual reality can help in reducing conflict between youth and police officers.Companies: Maryland Institute College of Art