‘Rocketdog’ Gives Stroke Survivors a Helping Hand

Posted June 13th, 2014 at 4:14 pm (UTC-4)
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Some games seem to revel in violence – a point that might add to the quiver of detractors complaining about violent video games. That said, all games are not violent; and there are those among them whose only purpose is to improve people’s lives.

Rocketdog is one of those games.

“You’re like this cute little dog,” says multimedia and video artist Eric Medine, creator of Visual Touch Therapy. “And as you play the game you get super powers … so you can fly, you can go into space, you can travel to the moon.”

That might not seem like a big deal – for a game. But Rocketdog, currently in beta testing, is more than that. Using motion tracking and motion control technologies, it lets stroke survivors exercise their hands with open and closed hand gestures and helps them regain mobility. Progress is tracked as players advance; and the game uses bonus points and a reward system to motivate them further.

The dashboard for Rocketdog shows the user's progress as he plays the game

The dashboard for Rocketdog shows the user’s progress as he plays the game. (Visual Touch Therapy)

“You beat a level or you get achievements,” said Medine. “You get rewards, and … that plays right into making people feel less frustrated and feel like they have control over their healing process.”

The point is to motivate patients to do their exercises. Stroke survivors like Medine’s uncle, who inspired the Visual Touch Therapy project, have to do physical therapy for weeks or months without seeing progress for quite some time.

Medine says normal actions for stroke survivors become a “huge chore and a huge inconvenience,” particularly that the exercises he saw were out of the “Stone Age,” as he put it, involving “very repetitive gestures” like “buttoning up your shirt and unbuttoning it to get strength in your hand and “crumpling a piece of paper and smoothing it out.”

“It’s not fun. It’s repetitive,” he said. “It’s easy to blow off. Nobody wants to do it”

He says people “feel more helpless doing these exercises” because they are doing them for so long. And they feel “depressed and very discouraged” because they are unable to see the desired improvements.

Sometimes it takes weeks or months before the effects of physical therapy become apparent to patients. Medine figured he could do better, making the exercises more fun by turning them into a game.

“Instead of having to wait months or weeks to see that your arm is better – while you’re playing the game … even if your mobility is not noticeably better, you’re better at playing the game itself,” said Medine.

Even if the patient is unable to see any physical improvement, Rocketdog beta tests show Medine the motion tracking results on his computer.

“It’s been helpful,” he said. “I’ve been able to see people – you know their numbers are going up. And they play longer, though the key thing is it keeps people coming back. It keeps people doing their rehab.”

The whole point, he says, is for people to be engaged and interested, rather than dropping the game in five minutes and never coming back to do their physical therapy exercises.

“It’s not just about showing improvement,” he said. “It’s also about making sure that people keep focused on the rehab and they keep coming back. I want to make their rehabilitation addictive.”

The challenge for Medine, while collaborating with physical therapists who prescribe the movements a stroke patient needs to perform, is to make the game interesting, even for non-gamers.

“How do I make a game that uses only this movement and it doesn’t do anything else?” Medine asked. He says it’s about making a game where it is engaging “to only move your arm in and out.”

A gamer himself, Medine had to tone down Rocketdog from the kind of “fast-paced and exciting” video games that he might go for.

“You can’t do that with this kind of project … because, remember this is an exercise people are doing,” he said. “They’re not typing on any keyboard. They’re not, you know playing any video game control – they do movements that are the prescribed movements by their occupational therapist.”

A pilot program to expand beta testing of the Visual Touch Therapy project, including Rocketdog, is scheduled to launch by the end of the summer. Medine says he wants to continue to show that his work “helps people.”

Attacking zombies and flying bullets are not included.


Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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