MICA Alumna Helps Repair Brain Injuries

With the swipe of a finger, iPhone and iPad gamers are underwater, battling swarms of fish and dangerous sharks. This sets the scene for Shark Eaters: Rise of the Dolphins, a simulation video game where players control “Bandit,” a young bottlenose dolphin. But as entertaining as the game is, even more important is the objective behind it—repairing brain injuries.

The foundation for the game is motor connection, which is not only employed for game play, but also as a treatment for patients after brain injuries and motor impairments, specifically strokes.

Kat McNally ’12 (Animation BFA), chief creative officer at Max and Haley, LLC, is lead artist for the Kata Project, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Neurology-based venture that enables biomedical and basic research outside of the conventional funding structure, mainly through academic/commercial collaboration and interdependency. She joined neurologist and Johns Hopkins University professor John Krakauer, MD, software architect Promit Roy, and computer scientist Omar Ahmad, PhD, to create Shark Eaters.

The team worked to produce a game that repurposes animation to provide more insight into how the brain functions by challenging the user to channel the engaging and exquisite movements and behaviors of a dolphin, known for being sociable and intelligent. The team also reasoned that movement is a form of cognition, and since people develop empathy for others through anticipating their movement, focusing on the movement of dolphins would bring awareness to the need for dolphin conservation.

To achieve the perfect modeling for the dolphin’s in-game movement, “we spent hundreds of hours studying their form and movement at the National Aquarium [in Baltimore],” McNally said. In the game, the featured mammals and fish are “imbued with a thinking, behavioral AI [artificial intelligence], and our creature animation is entirely physics-driven and procedurally generated in real time,” she said.

The MICA alumna, who specializes in comics and animation, did the artwork for the game, which entailed creating storyboards, character designs, 3-D models for characters, backgrounds, logos, menu layouts, and a lot of the narrative. On a small team, working closely and productively with her collaborators, she wore many hats, something she believes MICA prepared her to do.

The Kata Project is an initiative of Hopkins Neurology Department’s Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement Lab, where an incredibly diverse mixture of professionals have come together to solve complex scientific and medical problems. In addition to McNally, collaborators in the lab include brain specialists, biomedical engineers, physicians, computer engineers, and psychologists. Though she works well with this extraordinarily multifaceted and highly skilled team, her unique abilities as an artist give her a special vantage point from which to add a creative contribution. “I bring a very different skill set and knowledge base to the table compared to, say, a roboticist or a computer graphics engineer, and that allows us to challenge each other and approach solutions in unexpected ways,” she said.

McNally is used to working with smart people. “MICA pushed me even harder to get on the level with many of my classmates,” she said. “I was also lucky enough to have a very smart, talented friend group at school, many of whom I still communicate with and exchange critiques [and] feedback.” For more information on Shark Eaters: Rise of the Dolphins, visit twitter.com/sharkeatersgame.