Childhood physical therapy is getting a creative revamp, thanks to a group of students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
TheraVR, a virtual reality program that gamifies physical therapy for children with neuromuscular diseases, was born inside a Savannah classroom with renowned professor and creator Teri Yarbrow. Immersive Reality students were looking for a way to help children who struggle with balance, strength, and endurance but aren’t motivated by the “sterile” environment found at many physical therapy centers.
Instead of just doing repetitive movements while staring at a wall, children can be transported to a river to kayak or a mountain to ski while they work on their fine motor skills. Khushi Bhatt, Andrea Castro Yanes, Yash Patel, and Phoenix Hunt are the students behind TheraVR.
“[Physical therapy for children] is quite frankly boring and not cognitively stimulating,” recent graduate Khushi Bhatt told Hypepotamus. “They already feel like they are falling behind their peers, they have an aversion to going to therapy every day, and that actually makes them regress. They don’t maintain muscular elasticity or strength. And that’s the problem we wanted to tackle.”
Get To Know TheraVR
The students worked with doctors, physical therapists, and occupational therapists to develop a fun and motivational VR game with three distinct levels that emulates the different goals of physical therapy sessions. The first level is a balance challenge where kids put on the VR headset and ski down a mountain. The second level is a kayaking adventure that works on strength and endurance, while the third level is a breathing exercise.
“The movements in the game are very simple, but they translate to exercises in real life. The goal is to help children build up key motor skills,” added Bhatt. “We are really trying to gift independence to these children by creating dynamic and iterated movements that forge new neural pathways and maintain the ones that they have created. We really wanted to target healing the mind, encouraging curiosity and wonder and joy that encourages the body to follow.”
The VR game also allows children to take physical therapy sessions outside of the four walls of their doctor’s office.
Andrea Castro, also a recent graduate who worked on the project, said the most difficult part was not only translating physical therapy movements into VR, but also making sure those movements work with the story and journey they wanted users to go through while playing the game.
“We had to make storytelling into something functional and user friendly,” she told Hypepotamus. “We wanted to connect with nature, we wanted to give [the children] an experience that maybe they have not had the opportunity to do before.”
It was also a good lesson in accessibility and inclusivity within VR, as Bhatt added that “we had to learn to listen to the audience and design based on their needs. That was a reality check for us. It’s not just about us as designers and creators and just being making these cool looking graphics. Rather, it’s really about whom we are making it for.”
Healthcare Meets VR
TheraVR is being built at a time when more focus is on the intersection of healthcare and VR. The FDA (Food & Drug Administration) recently created a new designation for medical extended reality projects, paving the way for new approved technologies that can help patients.
The American Medical Extended Reality Association also launched recently to help grow new VR-related innovations within healthcare settings.
Now, this isn’t the first medical-related VR project that has come out of SCAD. Yarbrow and her students previously developed VR projects for people going through hospice and palliative care. The projects have not only helped patients tick off items from their bucket list (like taking a hot air balloon ride), but has helped with pain management.
SCAD’s VR For Good initiative has been on campus for several years, and Yarbrow said the intersection of medicine and VR is often a “lightbulb moment” for her immersive reality students looking to design experiences that give back and help others.
For Yarbrow, what the students behind TheraVR developed is “lightyears ahead” of other medical VR work because it is as beautiful as it is practical.
“I am thrilled that our students have taken up this challenge. Not only can they make fantastic looking experiences, but now they can make experiences that can really change somebody’s life,” Yarbrow told Hypepotamus.
Now, the team behind TheraVR is looking into the IRB certification process in order to bring their experiences to more children.