New virtual reality game at IWK teaches kids to safely drive power wheelchairs

New virtual reality game at IWK teaches kids to safely drive power wheelchairs

A team at the IWK’s rehabilitation center hope they have come up with an innovative way to help patients navigate the world in electric wheelchairs by teaching them driving skills through virtual reality games.

Dr. Jordan Sheriko, the project leader, spent four years working with Halifax-based Mars VR Lab to create the software to train his patients while entertaining them.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “I don’t think any of us would have really imagined being where we are now when we started this.”

Sheriko first became interested in virtual reality and its applications in rehabilitation therapy during his medical training.

Dr. Jordan Sheriko says it’s important to find innovative ways to help children adapt to their environments. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

A few years ago, he mentioned to his colleagues that he wanted to explore virtual reality as a tool with his patients, as it was an emerging area for research. He said that someone happened to mention the Mars VR Lab.

“At the same time, there was a local business that was very keen to use their skills in software development, virtual reality and project management to see how we could leverage that to help people,” he said.

“Our developers have really put together a fantastic world to explore.”

The result is a game set in a futuristic, robot-filled world. The kids have to navigate through a number of fun challenges that are actually designed to teach them the skills to use their own wheelchairs.

The hope is to send the virtual reality system home with families so that children can develop the skills needed to operate an electric wheelchair. Sheriko says this will be a huge benefit for those who live far from the hospital in Halifax. (Contributed by Mars VR Lab)

Sheriko’s patients who are experienced wheelchair users tested the game throughout its development and provided advice along the way.

“The feedback has been pretty consistent in that they see it as a tool that can really support power wheelchair training,” he said.

Sheriko sees two key benefits with the software. First, it creates a safe space for children to learn how to use expensive equipment.

“When we do power wheelchair training in the real world, we have people around you trying to help and support,” he said. “We have a very expensive piece of equipment in the ballpark of $30,000, [plus] walls, other infrastructure being damaged or injured.

“They learn early, intermediate skills in a virtual environment where it’s safe, it’s easily accessible, it’s fun and engaging.”

The rehabilitation team at the IWK spent four years working with a local company, Mars VR Lab, to create the program. (Contributed by Mars VR Lab)

The other benefit is for those who live far from the IWK or other rehabilitation facilities.

Sheriko said the technology can be set up at home for training purposes. The person can come back later for testing to see if they are ready to go out into the community in a power wheelchair.

The program is still in the research phase, but Sheriko says it should be ready to be shared with other rehabilitation centers by February.

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