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7 Different Game Prototypes for Health Research

Over the past few years, we’ve accumulated a broad range of experience working with research teams. However, apart from a small summary of university-related projects in 2013, we haven’t shared much, so it’s time to fill in some of the gaps. Here is the story of how we helped several of our clients in health research.

1. Shapes and Rhythm Makes Physical Therapy Virtually Entertaining

Rehabilitation of motor skills in patients suffering from partial limb paralysis requires a lot of repeated motion, and can be quite boring for them as well as physical therapists. The wE-MOVE research project is a consortium that includes PreviewLabs and Ghent University‘s professors Dr. Hilde Van Waelvelde (pediatric physiotherapy) and Dr. Jan Van Looy (Media, Innovation and Communication Technologies lab aka MICT).

With the help of a research grant, we worked with the wE-MOVE stakeholders to prototype different “exergame” concepts to turn the tedious therapy motions into an engaging challenge. “Shapes and Rhythm” is a virtual reality game prototype combining the Oculus Rift with the Leap Motion tracker. Patients see their hands in the VR environment, and move them to visual and musical cues with increasing difficulty. The movement of the more functional limb is mirrored, just like in traditional mirror therapy.

2. Stealth Game Turns Fitness into Child’s Play

Another exergame we prototyped for the wE-MOVE project provided an interval training session, aimed to benefit overweight children. Again, we brainstormed with the stakeholders and fleshed out several concepts that we proposed to the group. Two of them we prototyped in a first iteration, and the Stealth Game prototype was selected as the one the consortium wanted to continue with.

In this concept, kids play a remote-controlled robot that needs to navigate a maze. The game works similar to running games like Temple Run, but instead of swiping on a touch screen, it’s a PC game with Microsoft Kinect where the child represents the robot in the maze, and needs to move to move the robot. The child walks or runs in place, and the robot walks or runs. They can side-step, jump, hop on one leg, pretend to hang from monkey bards, etc.

We integrated the Mio Alpha heart rate monitor to help customize the difficulty to the player, so the choices of sections generated would depend on the player’s heart rate. They start with high intensity segments until their heart rate is above a certain level for a certain period of time. Next, lower intensity segments would be offered until the heart rate dropped below a certain value, before offering high intensity segments again – thus implementing interval training.

3. MoMba Brings New Moms Together for Support and Science

Drs. Megan Veenema Smith, Linda Mayes, and Frederic Shic at the Yale School of Medicine approached us to create a gamified social network application prototype to bring first-time mothers in low-income neighborhoods together. This group shows a higher rate of isolation and post-natal depression, so the MoMba app had to both engage and encourage them to interact with each other and build much-needed emotional support systems. It also needed a robust back-end to provide researchers access to monitor and study the group’s progress, as these at-risk moms’ daily lives rarely allow room for more active participation in research studies.

Initially, the project team wanted a mix of features from all the usual social media programs. We slimmed it down to an initial core concept prototype with an attractive user interface, and added features inspired by Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. Mom participation is incentivized by earning points that can eventually be exchanged for gift cards at stores like Wal-Mart.

4. Moms Rewarded for Not Smoking With MoMba Live Long

This add-on to the MoMba app aims to help moms remain smoke-free after pregnancy, or quit if they restarted after bringing their baby home. MoMba Live Long uses incentivized challenges and achievements for not smoking. We also integrated the new prototype with the Sensordrone, and later the iCO Smokerlyzer, in order to measure whether someone has been smoking through the detection of carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the participants’ breath.

5. Measuring How Far Spiders Make You Jump With Y.I.K.E.S. (Yale Interactive Kinect Environment Software)

A participant engaging in the YIKES behavioral avoidance task (A); and what the participant sees on the screen (B).

We were approached by Drs. Eli R. Lebowitz and Frederic Shic at the Yale Child Study Center to help them develop a better way to measure avoidance in children with anxiety disorders (like arachnophobia—the fear of spiders). These phobias are difficult to work through due to our natural negative reinforcement: it feels good and safe to avoid the object of our fear, which acts as a reward, triggering avoidance again the next time (and escalating the fear factor).

Usually, the level of avoidance is measured using a very subjective self-reporting questionnaire with questions like: “How close can you get to a spider before you feel anxious?”. The researchers needed something more specific and measurable. We developed a game prototype with the Microsoft Kinect, where player movements triggered after showing different stimuli (spiders, starfish, etc.) on the left and right of the screen are measured, allowing researchers to track levels of avoidance. Currently, Y.I.K.E.S. is being used in multiple large scale randomized controlled trials.

6. Tell Pain Buddy How You’re Feeling

Dr. Michelle Fortier of the Center on Stress & Health at UC Irvine approached us to modify and enhance their Pain Buddy app—a pain assessment diary for children undergoing cancer treatment. Instead of filling out a dull questionnaire, they came up with a fun, interactive app with cute animal “buddies” that talk to the patients and ask them questions about their pain.

Initially, their students were developing the program, but they had limited time for the project and there were too many cooks in the kitchen. The prototype was not being developed quickly enough to meet the study requirements. PreviewLabs was able to devote a full-time, professional team to create the prototype within the timeline and budget of their research grant. We improved the interface, added mini games, and added coins the children could spend in the games, or on customizing their “buddy” avatar.

7. Learning To Make Better Choices with the Sexual Risk Reduction Game

Early prototype footage with example story content.

Dr. Aileen Gariepy’s research focuses on high-risk sexual behavior in teens and the impact unexpected pregnancy has on their lives. She approached the Yale’s play2PREVENT lab with an idea for a mobile-based educational game, but wasn’t sure where to begin. They referred her to us, and assisted in providing the prototype content later on.

We brainstormed with Dr. Gariepy to flesh out the “Sexual Risk Reduction Game” that could help educate teens about contraceptives, STIs and pregnancy in a way that would stick. We came up with a dialog-based “choose your own adventure” prototype. The player makes decisions in various conversations at parties, in the bedroom before having sex, with the school nurse, etc. Along the way, the player and their character in the game learn more about prevention, STIs, correct use of contraceptives, and ways to talk about the subject with their partner. This unlocks extra options in the dialogs.

We have more health research projects coming up soon, and will talk about some of the ones highlighted here in more detail in future blog posts. Stay tuned!

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