By Meredith Dault
April 4th, 2012
Sitting in a chair equipped with a couple of bicycle-style pedaling devices, Zi Ye focuses his attention on a large screen projected on the wall in front of him. When he begins to pedal, an animated character starts to move through a fabricated world, jumping his way past a series of obstacles. The group of students sitting around the sparsely furnished room watching him play are captured by the screen, too. They laugh with Ye when his character fails to land a jump.
But while many students turn to video games for relaxation in their downtime, that’s not what’s happening here. This is research. Ye, a recent Queen’s graduate, is a computer programmer, and the other students in the room, Irina Schumann, Hamilton Hernandez and Ameer Hamza are all students working towards graduate degrees in School of Computing.
They’ve all been collaborating with Queen’s professor Nicholas Graham, whose area of expertise includes “exergaming”, on a project exploring the possibility of using interactive video games to help young people struggling with cerebral palsy.
“We are motivated by the fact that youth with cerebral palsy get less mobile with time,” explains Dr. Graham. “They may go from walking, to walking with canes, to eventually ending up in wheelchairs.” As the they decline physically, Graham says that they also become less able to participate in regular exercise -- and that only exacerbates the problem, leading to further decline in their physical function.
But besides the physical symptoms, Dr. Graham says that young people struggling with cerebral palsy also battle the isolation that comes with not being able to participate in as many activities.
That’s something Dr. Graham and his team are hoping to address in their work. They’ve designed the video game, powered using the pedaling device, that can be played over a network, and in an interactive manner with friends.
The project which fuses computer research with medicine, is a collaboration with University of Toronto’s Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and with Dr. Darcy Fehlings and her research team. As a result, the research teams have been able to work closely with a group of teens with cerebral palsy as they’ve been designing both the cycling apparatus and the game itself.
Ye explains that the game, which they’ve been working on for more than a year, is called “Liberi” (“it’s latin for ‘free’”) and that it takes place in a fictional place called “Liberi Island.” The object of the game is to move your character around while building structures from virtual blocks, ‘soundstones’ (which make sounds), ladders and other structures. “The character is meant to represent every kid playing the game,” adds Hamilton, describing a set-up that will allow each player to customize their own character.
And it’s an “action oriented” game -- meaning that the player has to work, physically, in order to reach his or her goals. Dr. Graham demonstrates by pedaling furiously in an effort to make his character go uphill. He says that unlike mainstream gaming systems like Nintendo Wii, which often aren’t vigorous enough to elevate a player’s heart rate, this game can make a real difference for kids struggling with mobility issues.
Hernandez, who is from Colombia and in the second year of his PhD program, says that the young participants have already seen their strength and agility increase since they’ve been using the game at the testing stage. “We’ve done some tests where we measured the energy expenditure of the kids playing, and in some cases, they went from not being able to pedal a little bit, to at the end, meeting the Canadian guidelines for physical exercise.”
“These games can really motivate kids to exercise,” he adds, “and with time, we would expect to see some fitness improvements.”
While the system is currently designed for youth in the 12 to 16 year old range, Dr. Graham adds that he can imagine similar technology eventually being used to engage older adults in physical exercise.
But he’s not the only one excited about the possibilities inherent in this project. “It’s something different, because you really help people,” says Schumann, an exchange student from Germany.
Hamilton adds that there is satisfaction in seeing how engaged the kids are with the project. “They have all these ideas,” he adds, explaining that they’ve been able to give their input right from the first concept ideas.
For Hamza, who is in the second year of his Master’s degree, the project puts a healthy spin on video gaming technology. “I don’t like the idea of making (video) games to get someone addicted to violence,” he says with a smile. “But if there is a good reason and a good purpose, well that is something that my heart can support.”