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University of Utah researchers develop virtual reality games for medical uses

By Mike Anderson  |  Posted Apr 28th, 2017 @ 6:34pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Seeking a career in the video games industry, Ben Steele never thought he'd find himself using his programming skills to help spinal cord injury patients.

"Being able to help people with it adds a level of gratification to the work," Steele said. "It's something that you don't even typically get in the field that we're going into."

Steele worked with a team of fellow University of Utah graduate students to create a simulator that imitates skiing and sailing. Patients can use a joystick or a puffing controller to move. It's something they'll eventually do in the real-world with devices designed to get them back to enjoying the outdoors.

"We help people practice the control schemes that they'd actually be using on the mountain," Steele explained.

Steele's project is one of several apps and games being developed in the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab, or GApp Lab at the university.

"The students learn so much from interacting with real partners, with real medical professionals, with innovators and scientists," said program manager Greg Bayles.

Another game uses a Microsoft HoloLens headset, which puts virtual objects into the wearer's real surroundings. Coupled with a Myo brand sensor, Bayles says it can sense movements in the upper-arm, to give amputees a virtual hand.

"The idea is phantom-limb pain affects people because there's usually such a big gap between the time a person has their limb amputated and when they can actually get the prosthetic," Bayles said.

A group of graduate program students at the University of Utah are working closely with medical experts and patients to develop several therapy-centered video games. (KSL TV)

The HTC Vive virtual reality headset and a pair of controllers are powering yet another project.

"It's a game to help kids with autism to self-soothe and lower their anxiety through patterning and coordination," Bayles said.

The underwater-based game uses motion controls to alter the path of fish and choreograph those changes with music.

"So far, it's been really effective," Bayles said. "Kids have loved the experience as a whole."

Bayles said the games and apps are just some examples of how skills and technology traditionally used to create video games, will continue to have practical uses in the future.

"They're working elbow to elbow with clinicians, researchers, data analysts to try to come up with innovative solutions to real problems," Bayles said.

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