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Maryland Institute College of Art, Shock Trauma partner to use virtual reality for spinal injury patients

The MICA Game Lab is working with trauma physicians at the Maryland Blended Reality Center to develop VR prototypes to help patients who have injuries resulting in quadriplegia

BALTIMORE — The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) Game Lab is developing virtual reality games to help spinal injury patients, and reduce the current practice that relies heavily on medication.

After a meeting at a MICA Game Lab event, the College began working with trauma physicians at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, University of Maryland, who are part of the Maryland Blended Reality Center (MBRC). MBRC is an innovative collaboration between computer scientists at the University of Maryland, College Park and physicians at the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

"Life after a trauma can be full of anxiety and pain, especially during the first hospital admission after a devastating injury," said Sarah Murthi, MD, Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Outside of powerful and dangerous medications like opioids — Oxycodone or Percocet — and benzodiazepines — Ambien or Valium — physicians have few tools to relieve suffering."

MICA and Shock Trauma are working to help change that.

This summer’s work, which is being done by interns Nastia Garachtchenko ‘19 (Animation and Game Design BFA) and Marco Cortes ‘20 (Game Design BFA) and overseen by Game Lab Director Jason Corace, has focused on developing immersive virtual reality games to reduce pain and promote healing after serious traumatic injury for patients with high spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia.

Garachtchenko and Cortes, who are working this summer with Dr. Murthi; Steven Butkus, an augmented and virtual reality designer; and R. Scott Murray, a clinical research specialist, at MBRC, were introduced to different trauma teams to help guide them in their development thought process. They were also introduced to one of the hospital’s quadriplegic patient partners, who was able to provide insight as to what it’s like living with a spinal cord injury.

The two interns have spent the summer working to develop virtual reality prototypes to help spinal injury patients deal with stress associated with tracheostomy collar trials, which is when patients are tested to see how they can breathe unassisted from a breathing tube.

MICA students have been working to build a suite of interconnected games that patients can play using a virtual reality headset and a QuadStick, which is a custom game controller.

"The students in our Game Design program are uniquely skilled to do this kind of work because developing team-based and creative-problem-solving skills is core to how we approach Game Design," Corace said. "Our students think broadly and passionately about the role of play and how games can best be used to help solve a wide array of problems."

The MICA Game Lab will continue to work with Shock Trauma this fall to test the technology.