Danielle Levac, professor of Physical Therapy in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University, has developed video games to make physical therapy more fun, motivating, and rewarding for patients—especially for children with movement impairments, such as those with cerebral palsy. She had invited a group of fifth-grade students from Boston’s Ellis Mendell Elementary School to visit her lab to test out this theory. The young students sat in the Rehabilitation Games and Virtual Reality Laboratory illuminated by floor-to-ceiling screens with virtual worlds on them and learned about the professional working field of physical therapists and how this research can benefit their patients.
“Why do you think a physical therapist would use games like this in physical therapy?” Levac asked the group. “One reason is so we can help people to move a part of their body that may have gotten hurt in an accident or damaged by a disease.”
The students were then encouraged to try out some of the many games, tasks, and puzzles developed by Levac, who has a concrete background in pediatric physical therapy, with the games being accompanied by knowledge about virtual reality and how this scientific concept could help to track the progress of and motivate the patients.
Levac understands that these video games and tasks need to be hard enough to challenge the patients to motivate them to move or take action. However, it shouldn’t be that hard which may create a feeling of frustration and self-hatred within the patients. Levac wanted the kids to test for the four different games she created, during this visit, to help her create objective and subjective analysis on the success of her experiment. WHAM, the Wearable Health and Activity Monitor, is the result of a collaboration between Levac’s lab and the Enabling Engineering student group. It uses a sensor and an accelerometer to detect movement and energy expenditure during video game play.
“We want to test this with kids who have problems moving, so we first need to test it with you to see how it works,” Levac told the fifth-graders.
With the WHAM on their wrists, the students whacked large balls at targets and jumped through bubbles in a virtual environment created using an Xbox 360 Kinect. The information collected from the students’ play will be used to make it easier for parents and therapists to monitor kids’ progress and understand how they use their bodies during game play. Students also virtually opened and closed desk drawers using an Oculus Rift and then tried a reaching-and-balancing task in both a physical and virtual environment.
Part of what Levac studies is the difference between learning and repeating new tasks in the physical and virtual world. Each posed its own challenges for the students as they worked out how to move through the games. “This one is super hard,” Levac said, referring to the physical version of the reaching-and-balancing game. “That’s why we’re trying to figure out how to make it easier or harder for others. It always takes a bit of time.”