Design team builds VR game to help children with cerebral palsy

· 4 min read

Design team builds VR game to help children with cerebral palsy

Student developer Brock Williams tests the VR game he's built with fellow Senior Design team members for the UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute.
Student developer Brock Williams tests the virtual reality game he's built with fellow Senior Design team members for the UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute.

A group of computer science and engineering students spent the 2019-20 school year making a game that’s making a difference.

For their Senior Design capstone project, the students collaborated with the University of Nebraska Medical Center Munroe-Meyer Institute on a virtual reality project that will help children with cerebral palsy.

The project is a virtual reality game designed to emulate hand-arm bimanual intensive therapy, which induces specific motions using both arms to improve the motor capabilities of patients.

“Sometimes these individuals have one side of the body that’s more affected than the other, so what this program is aiming to do is provide games that require them to use both arms equally to succeed,” said James Gehringer, project sponsor and research assistant professor.

Gehringer oversees the Virtual Reality Laboratory, which specializes in research that uses cutting-edge technology to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He approached the Senior Design team hoping to collaborate on a product that would make the HABIT therapy sessions more fun for young patients.

“This is a green light therapy that’s been proven to work for individuals, but one of the major limitations is that because it’s so long and we’re working with kids, it can be hard to keep their engagement,” Gehringer said. “We’re hoping this helps improve that.”

The initial project concept was a virtual escape room, but students expanded on the idea to create a multi-room game complete with its own narrative as well as additional mini games and puzzles. The game is programmed to change randomly with each replay and can also be adjusted manually based on patient needs. A Therapist UI feature allows therapists to scale the game to each individual’s ability level before and during a playing session.

“There are a lot of accessibility features we considered,” said Ethan Penn, a team leader. “The therapist can change how many blocks they have to put into the reactor before they win, the range of movements that are allowable, how precise they have to be. Some people may have problems pressing the back trigger, and in cases when that can’t be done, there are other options.”

To develop game concepts and puzzles, students worked with Gehringer to learn more about what types of physical movements therapists focused on during treatments, many of which simulated everyday activities such as putting on a sweater or chopping food. Students modeled game premises around similar movements and shared them with Gehringer and therapists, who then allowed children to play-test demos during therapy sessions.

Gehringer said feedback from therapists has been extremely positive, and they’ve only encountered one major issue.

“One of the things we’re finding is that the kids don’t want to leave,” Gehringer said. “They don’t want to take the headsets off.”

The game will be offered as part of a suite of games children will have the option to play during a 10-day HABIT camp in August. Gehringer hopes it will also be something therapists can continue to use during regular sessions in the future.

“It’s come together very well and it’s going to do a lot of good for the kids,” Gehringer said. “These guys shot for the stars and built such a great project.”

Project manager Melanie Kugler-Wright agreed that the students’ creativity and professionalism was especially impressive. According to developer Jared Svoboda, the meaningful nature of the project challenged and inspired them to build an exceptional product.

“What we’re doing is very fulfilling. It’s going to be helpful and that’s a big motivating factor. It’s also just a really fun project.”

Senior Design is currently accepting new projects and sponsor applications for the 2020-21 school year. Apply online by June 26, and learn more about the Senior Design program.