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Prescription to play: U. working to improve your health with apps, games

By Peter Rosen  |  Posted Mar 17th, 2017 @ 7:03pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — How do you get a newly diagnosed diabetic to take his or her blood sugar level seriously? Perhaps, by turning that data into a mountain range.

“A lot of the medical information that we get is abstracted, that it’s information about your body you don’t really feel anymore,” said Roger Altizer, a professor at the University of Utah. “So (we) want to bring the feeling of your health information back to you.”

As director of digital medicine of the University of Utah’s Center for Medical Innovation, Altizer leads an effort to create apps and games like Virtual Medical Records (VMR), which creates a landscape out of blood-glucose levels, for medical purposes.

Altizer is a first-generation gamer, who unknowingly started his career path very early when his dad brought home an Atari Pong console. The machine got Altizer grounded, and it helped launch the gaming industry.

From Pong, Altizer graduated to a Texas Instruments 994A, an early home computer.

“I bought issues of Family Computing magazine, and books, and typed in programs by hand; and that’s really what got me started computing,” Altizer said.

“We weren’t as cool as Matthew Broderick in 'WarGames' but we all had that same kind of hacker mentality of ‘Let’s see what these machines can do,’” he said.

Altizer, who has virtually no formal education in computer science, would go on to help found the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering Master Games Studio (EAE), a nationally top-ranked program for game designers.

From the very beginning, he said, doctors and medical researchers were interested in developing so-called “serious” games with a medical purpose.

So, EAE and the Center for Medical Innovation created the Therapeutic Games and Apps lab, or GApp Lab, where 35 graduate-student gamers were embedded inside the Eccles Health Science Library on the campus of the University of Utah Medical School.

As director of digital medicine of the University of Utah’s Center for Medical Innovation, Roger Altizer (right) leads an effort to create apps and games like Virtual Medical Records (VMR), which creates a landscape out of blood-glucose levels, for medical purposes. (Photo: KSL TV)

It’s a place where gamers meet doctors and create medical apps like Virtual Medical Records, which turns blood-glucose levels into a mountain range, to impress upon patients the importance of that information.

“That act of putting on a virtual-reality headset and having to crane your neck to see where your level is is a very different experience (from) seeing (that) on a chart,” Altizer said.

Brandon Rivera-Melo, a graduate student and GApp lab worker, is diabetic and has tested the program.

“When you see your blood sugar just represented in a more visceral way it has more impact to know the meaning about what you’re seeing," Rivera-Melo said. “It gets across the point, like, ‘Oh, OK. This is more of a big deal than I thought it was.’”

Other GApp lab creations include a phone app that encourages people to take their medication by watering and growing a virtual garden when they do, an underwater virtual reality designed to teach spatial relations to kids with autism and Augmented Reality Body Image for patients with body dysmorphia, an anxiety disorder where a person has a seriously distorted image of his or her body.

Wearing a Hololens, glasses that integrate computer images with what is in front of the wearer, users can shape an avatar into what they think they look like, and then compare that figure avatar with a real image of themselves.

“We’re also extending the use of that technology for use with amputees,” Altizer said, “to create augmented-reality prosthetic limbs,” so amputees can practice using prosthetic limbs before they get them.

Altizer said a few years ago his father apologized for scolding him for playing too many video games.

“Yeah, the whole game thing has worked out for me,” he said. “I think it was quarters well-spent.”

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