Considering the amount of time kids spend sitting in front of the television playing video games these days, it might be surprising that one engineering student would be encouraging them to do it even more.
But that’s exactly what William Li, a third-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Toronto (UT), is doing. Li created a video game to serve as an at-home form of virtual reality therapy for children with hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a condition involving paralysis or partial paralysis of one side of the body. Since the affected side of a child’s body suffers from a range of muscle challenges, including spasticity, tightness and impaired motion, he or she often favors using the unaffected side to perform daily tasks.
In an effort to help these children develop strength, range of motion and motor skills on their “weak” side, Li spent last summer working at Bloorview Kids Rehab, Canada’s largest children’s rehab hospital and a teaching hospital affiliated with UT. With a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Li created a video game based on Sony PlayStation2 with an added motion-detector camera that lets the child see himself on the screen. To activate the game, the child needs to sit on a chair and hold down a button underneath the seat with his “stronger” limb. At the same time, the child must maintain good posture to depress another button on the chair’s back. The child then uses his other, weaker arm as a joystick in conjunction with the camera to play the game, performing tasks like picking fruit and putting it in a bowl or grabbing a piece of cheese and grating it with an animated cheese grater.
Li and his advisers, Tom Chau, a UT professor who holds a Canada Research Chair in pediatric rehabilitation engineering, and Darcy Fehlings, physician director of Bloorview’s child development program, have been testing the game over the past few months with children ages 6 to 9—and they’ve gotten rave reviews. Not only did the game get the kids to use their weaker side; they had so much fun that they told Li it didn’t feel like therapy. That could help children adhere more closely to their therapy schedule, Chau says, without even realizing it since they’re enjoying themselves so much.
Through the video game, the children and their families could one day have the convenience of therapy in their own home—and the children might actually look forward to it. “It’s an activity that doesn’t have to set them out as being different,” Li says. “It’s an activity they can do with others that’s a lot of fun.”
Chau says the hospital is fortunate to have the help of passionate students like Li who bring a fresh perspective and lots of energy. Addressing this particular problem with a video game was a logical solution from a student who had grown up in a video-game generation. “I think that is really where all the new, leading-edge ideas are generated—from interaction with the younger generation,” Chau says.
Although the game is not yet available on the market, its development has been gratifying for Li, who’s been able to watch the children enjoy their therapy and at the same time, see the fruit of his engineering skills.
“This project really crystallizes my belief that engineers and engineering students have the power—and they have the responsibility—to make a positive impact in this world,” says Li, who’s also the co-president of the UT chapter of Engineers Without Borders. “Not just by creating products—faster this, faster that—but a responsibility to help where help is needed.”
Lynne Shallcross is senior editor of Prism.