Virtual reality game helps young patients visualize body’s battle
December 25, 2016
The game screen is dark and creepy, just as a journey through the inner workings of a body would be with all those weird veins and organs floating around. Suddenly, a mocking, one-eyed creature pops into view, bent on destruction. It must be vanquished.
One shot and it is gone. But then there is another. And another.
That’s how it is in cancer and video games. The bad stuff just keeps coming.
Which is why two women, one from Texas, one from Belgium, joined forces to come up with an inventive way to let children with cancer visualize the fight going on inside them. Marrying the technology of virtual-reality gaming with medicine, kids can zap pretend rogue cells on their screen while chemotherapy takes on the real ones to save their lives.
“It is self-empowering. Instead of them just being passive and playing a game where they shoot things, it brings their focus back to what is happening to them. It makes it real,” said Joowon Kim, a 36-year-old computer scientist and gaming industry veteran.
Korean-born and now living in Houston, Kim is co-founder of a unique start-up called OnComfort that offers virtual reality applications to distract, relax, and educate patients during difficult medical procedures. The products are being developed and readied for market through JLABS @ TMC, a life-sciences business incubator launched earlier this year by Johnson & Johnson and the Texas Medical Center.
The games, currently being tested in Europe, could start to show up in U.S. hospitals as early as next year. Alyssa Luksa, manager of child life and expressive therapy at Memorial Hermann Health System, said she is intrigued by the possibilities for using games to help patients.
“They can get a really good understanding of their disease,” Luksa said. Plus, she added, “When kids are relaxed, the parents are, too.”
Game applications are viewed through a Samsung Gear VR headset. The one specific to children undergoing cancer treatment is called Kimo, currently in trial phases and is expected to be used in 2017 in treatments in Houston.
Three other virtual reality therapies are in varying stages of testing and development in Houston and Europe and offer relaxation visualization techniques to be used to tamp down anxiety.
For instance, Aqua is a mellow journey under the sea where the wearer is prompted to breathe steadily in time with a giant whale’s tale as it moves up and down.
The deeply personal journey to create OnComfort is as unique as the two women who traveled it.
Kim came to the United States as a teenage exchange student. She stayed, earned a master’s degree in interactive technology from Southern Methodist University with an emphasis in game development and soon was smack in the middle of the gaming world.
But she found herself growing restless, wondering if there wasn’t something more meaningful to do with her life.
She had become a devotee of yoga and learned to use it to manage her own stress and anxiety. She returned to Korea to teach English and while in Asia began to travel, especially through India, where she became even more immersed in yoga and the mind-body connection.
Kim returned to the United States in 2013 and took a job teaching game development at the Art Institute in Houston.
About the same time, a Belgium therapist named Diane Jooris was doing a project at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center using clinical hypnosis instead of medication to help patients through their fear before and during treatments. The technique is used widely in Europe but less so in the United States.
Jooris knew all too well of the emotional ripple effects that cancer can take not only to the patient but also those around them. “Everyone is suffering,” she said, also talking about herself. Her father died of bone cancer and her sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Last year, fate took a hand to join the two women together. Kim had gone to a local Houston meet-up to present a children’s game she had developed and was told she should meet this woman who had an idea about creating mind and body connection during cancer treatments. She just needed to find someone who knew something about creating games.
“It was like love at first thought,” joked Kim. The connection was instant, with each bringing skills to the table to reach the same goal.
“Let’s do this,” they said, each plunking down $50 to open a bank account under the name of their new company, OnComfort. Jooris had the business plan, Kim had the technological savvy.
Jooris now works out of Brussels, Kim is in Houston. In a recent phone interview Jooris said the idea of helping children understand and participate in their own treatment is simple yet profound. And what better way than through a game?
“It is completely intuitive for kids,” she said.
Kimo is now being translated into five languages. Kim and Jooris said that while virtual reality has exploded in popularity for home use, the medical community has been slower to embrace gaming applications in treatments.
“But that’s changing,” Kim said.
She envisions applications not only in cancer treatments but in any painful or stress-producing care, including MRIs, dentistry and fertility procedures.
“We are not replacing anesthesia, but it is avoiding sedation,” Kim said. “The impact could be huge.”