Cerebral Palsy VR Game

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Computer Science and Engineering department seniors are helping children with cerebral palsy become secret agents.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute collaborated with the group on Hand Arm Bimanual Intensive Therapy VR, a virtual reality project for children with cerebral palsy. Brock Williams, a senior computer science major, said players become secret agents who defeat an evil villain who has escaped. 

By completing the various puzzles in the game, the children can hopefully develop improved bimanual coordination and reduce the upper extremity motor control disparities that the children may have. 

“Our team was very motivated by this project because we knew how much of an immediate impact it would have on kids in our community,” Williams said. “It was a lot of fun to make and a very fulfilling project to work on my Senior year at UNL.”

James Gehringer, research assistant professor at the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation, said the idea to develop this virtual reality therapy software began with a collaborative team of research scientists, clinical therapists and engineers at the Munroe-Meyer Institute. 

He reached out to associative professors at UNL who connected them to students in the Senior Design class who usually create projects that involve web development, mobile development, data analytics and other simulated experiences like virtual reality and augmented reality. 

James Gehringer, senior computer science major and one of the developers on the project, said each of the puzzles included in the game are designed to incorporate specific repetitive physical movements that could be beneficial in a physical therapy environment. 

Williams said the player in the game has to use both of their hands and their upper body in order to complete the puzzles and the game. Williams said it’s common for people with cerebral palsy to have a dominant arm they use to complete tasks, but the puzzles require the children to use both of their hands equally. 

“Our project uses the tasks and therapies of HABIT and disguises them as a fun, narrative virtual reality video game,” Williams said in an email. 

Williams said the game also includes built-in interaction between the patient and therapist. Williams said the students designed a Therapist User Interface which allows the therapist to customize the gameplay experience for the patient. 

“By tailoring this experience to the player and allowing the therapist to interact with the player in game, we can help build that relationship between patient and sponsor,” Williams said. 

Williams said the team of 10 students had some difficulty getting familiar with all the technologies they had to use for the game. Bohn said most of the students didn’t have any experience working with virtual reality technology and they had to learn virtual reality development. 

Svoboda said one of the main difficulties of the project was designing with accessibility and calling as an integral part of the design. Bohn said since Gehringer and the students have different backgrounds, the students had to work to understand the terminology that physical therapists use. 

“This ranges from figuring what sort of movement would be most beneficial to a patient, what options should be built into the games and identify aspect of design that should be avoided,” Svoboda said in an email. “Being that the team was all computer science students, cerebral palsy was not an area that many of us as a team knew a whole lot about.”

Williams said the Munroe-Meyers Institute is implementing the game as a part of its HABIT therapy. Gehringer said the institute is hoping to evaluate the effectiveness of the project when it’s used as therapy soon, but it is currently rearranging its plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Ultimately, I hope the impact of this project is that we are able to make these Habit camps more beneficial and engaging for the children,” Svoboda said in an email. “I hope that when these kids come to these physical therapy sessions, they are excited to play our game and can leave with a smile on their face afterwards.” 

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